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The Vatican Sets Their Sights on Asia

Pontificates have common and particular geopolitical aspirations for increasing the power of the Catholic Church. The current pope and his two predecessors formed and maintain the U.S. episcopate as a politically motivated body who, in support of the Republican Party, remained silent on immoral military invasion, torture and domestic slaughter by firearms but went into paroxysms of outrage over birth control.

John Paul II allied with the Reagan administration against the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and in support of military dictatorships in Latin America.[1] The Eurocentric Benedict XVI tried to restore some deference previously enjoyed by the Church on that continent and concentrated on Africa, which he called the “lung of the Church,” mindful of the West African oil boom. Now, with one of their most influential and powerful pontiffs in history, the Vatican has undertaken a most ambitious project: incursion into Asia, the economic powerhouse and home to half the world’s population.

The first indication of the Vatican’s new direction was the appointment in July 2013 of George Yeo to one of the commissions organized to study Vatican finance and his later assignment to the new Vatican Council of the Economy along with Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong Hon. Yeo is the first layman from Asia given an important position in the Vatican. He graduated from Cambridge University and Harvard Business School and is a former Minister of Finance for Singapore and a brigadier-general in the Singapore Armed Forces. He is a director of AIA Group Ltd, based in Hong Kong with offices in Taiwan, China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. In addition, Yeo was a visiting scholar to Peking University and remains a visiting scholar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He chairs the International Advisory Panel of India’s Nalanda University and is on the advisory board of Harvard Business School and Opus Dei’s IESE Business School.

The Australian (Pacific Rim) Cardinal George Pell is now the tsar of all Vatican finance and administration. After becoming an archbishop in 1996, Pell invited Opus Dei to establish themselves in Melbourne and then Sydney when he became head of that archdiocese in 2001.

Hong Kong

The Aug. 30, 2014, ordination of three new bishops in Hong Kong on China’s doorstep was the first time since Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 that any bishops have been ordained in the former British colony. To underscore its significance in this “strategically important” diocese, “other bishops from Macau, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the U.S. and Germany” were present along with Cardinal Tong Hon who officiated.

A native of Hong Kong who studied in England and is head of Opus Dei for East Asia was one of the new bishops. Another new bishop, also a native of Hong Kong, is a member of the Vatican commission for the Catholic Church in China. “The diocese of Hong Kong has long seen itself (and has been working as) a bridge between the Catholic community in Hong Kong and the Catholic communities in mainland China.”

In addition to Australia, Opus Dei has been in Tokyo since 1958, Hong Kong 1981, Singapore 1982, South Korea and Vietnam in 2008.


When Vietnam was part of French Indochina, Catholics became the economic and political ruling class. After the French were defeated in 1954 and the country split with communists in control in the north, U.S. officials and Pope Pius XII agreed the south should remain under the control of wealthy anti-communist Catholics although the Buddhist majority was estimated at between 70% and 90% of the population. Both Pius and New York Cardinal Francis Spellman lobbied for Ngo Dinh Diem, whose brother was archbishop of Hue, to be installed as the CIA-approved “pliable leader” in South Vietnam.

“Diem’s suppression of free speech, promotion of Catholicism and persecution of his political enemies including many Buddhist religious leaders dashed any hopes of the South Vietnamese for a democracy,” driving many Vietnamese to the communist cause.

Vietnam and the Holy See – the government of the Catholic Church – have not had formal diplomatic relations since Vietnam’s communist government took over in 1975, but have been working toward closer ties since resuming dialogue in 2007 with the establishment of a Joint Working Group.

One of the U.S. State Department files uncovered by Wikileaks shows how Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, after he was run out of town for his protection of pedophile priests resulting in a promotion to Rome, acted as mediator between Hanoi and the Holy See….The Holy See’s priority in Vietnam is to protect religious freedom and spread it gradually, resolve pending property related disputes between the Vietnamese Church and government and, when conditions allow it, establish diplomatic relations aimed at protecting and expanding the Catholic Church in Vietnam…

On March 22, 2014, Pope Francis met with the president of the Vietnam parliament and appointed an archbishop for Ho Chi Minh City “in the hope that he may ease the relationship between the Holy See and Vietnam, one of the few countries which doesn’t have diplomatic relations with the Church.” “The presence of a ‘non-resident’ Vatican representative, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli [also ambassador to Singapore] has been another sign of the growing understanding which many hope will blossom into official diplomatic relations.”

In May, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam “condemned China’s recent deployment of a massive deep sea oil rig off the Vietnam’s coast while calling upon Catholics to take actions to defend Vietnamese sovereignty,” which “could earn the Church greater trust from the Hanoi government.”

The fifth meeting of Joint Working Group of the Holy See and Vietnam was held Sept. 10-11 in Hanoi to “deepen and develop the bilateral relationship between Vietnam and the Holy See.”

A respected local bishop acknowledged that ‘conflicts’ between the government and Church have decreased….Bishop Hop said a government crackdown a year ago on parishioners at the My Yen church of the Vinh diocese in which police fired gunshots and lobbed grenades to disperse hundreds of demonstrators demanding the release of two detained parishioners was unfortunate but said dialogues have helped address the situation. At least seven people were injured in the crackdown, which was among the most high profile government actions on religious groups in Vietnam, where religious activity is closely monitored and which is home to some 6 million Catholics, the most of any country in Southeast Asia after the Philippines…..
Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion, said that during his 11-day visit in July, there were “serious violations of freedom of religion or belief.” His planned visit to several provinces was “unfortunately interrupted” and he had received “credible information” that some people with whom he had wanted to meet had “been under heavy surveillance, warned, intimidated, harassed or prevented from traveling by the police.” “Even those who successfully met with me were not free from a certain degree of police surveillance or questioning.”

Vatican News deemed the Joint Working Group meeting a success and lauded “the development in the religious policies of Vietnam, reflected in the 2013 Amended Constitution…The Holy See delegation reaffirmed that it attached great importance to the development of relations with Vietnam in particular and Asia in general, as evidenced by the recent [South Korea] and upcoming [Philippines and Sri Lanka] papal trips to the continent. The Vietnamese side reiterated the consistent policy of the State and Party in respecting freedom of religion and belief of all people and supporting the Catholic Church in Vietnam to actively participate in national social and economic development.” [emphasis mine] The Parties agreed to convene the 6th meeting of the Vietnam – Holy See Joint Working Group in the Vatican, at a date to be arranged through diplomatic channels”.


All religion was outlawed when the Communist Party took control in 1949. Since religion thrives under persecution, in 1957 the government established a state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association run by the Communist Party. An underground Church remained loyal to Rome. No pope has ever recognized the CPCA as a legitimate form of Catholicism.

The Vatican desires good relations with China because it is a world power. So eager has the Vatican been to normalize their relations with China, in October 2005 they let it be known that they were willing to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan and move their embassy to Beijing. The Vatican received no response from China. Benedict’s desire to extend the Church’s influence seemed to bear more fruit during China’s PR campaign in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics to appear more moderate and open to Western ideals. The pope urged leaders in the underground Church and the CPCA towards dialogue and joint-liturgies. He even instructed the Jesuits to prepare for new missionary efforts in China. Any reciprocal conciliatory gestures from Beijing ended with the Olympics.[2]

In June 2014, “The Vatican is preparing to re-engage in official dialogue with China for the first time in several years, possibly within the year, according to some sources….‘My understanding is that China is hoping to establish diplomatic ties with the Vatican, and most people in the Vatican share this view too,’ said Bishop John Fang Xingyao, chairman of the CPCA.”

Beijing permitted Pope Francis’ Aug. 13 flight to South Korea to fly over Chinese airspace and the pontiff sent two “goodwill telegrams” to President Xi Jinping. On his return flight, the pope “said he was ready to go to China – ‘For sure! Tomorrow!’ – after receiving a positive response” from the president. However, a CPCA official followed up with a warning to the pope: “China will always safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity and it never allows foreign forces to interfere with religion.”

“Facing mixed signals coming from the government regarding dealings with the Vatican, Pope Francis hopes to warm their relationship and someday establish a diplomatic representative in Beijing” by appointing a permanent non-residential representative with China which could lead to “full diplomatic ties in the future,” it was reported on Sept. 6. Confirming that the road to sainthood is political more often than not, this Catholic website said the pope would begin with the beatification of Matteo Ricci, the 16th century Jesuit missionary to China, just as the pope announced the beatification of 124 Korean martyrs prior to his trip to South Korea and may declare Sri Lanka’s first saint before that visit.

Another means popes have to signify the importance of a certain area is through ecclesial promotions. West Africans Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana was brought to Rome as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2009; Archbishop Robert Sarah of Guinea was made a cardinal in 2010 and appointed head of the pontifical foundation, Cor Unum; and Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Nigeria was promoted to cardinal in 2012. In February 2014, Orlando B. Quevedo, Archbishop of Cotabato (Philippines) and Andrew Yeom Soo jung, Archbishop of Seoul (Korea) were elevated to cardinal by Pope Francis.

South Korea

Not all papal foreign trips have direct political agendas but all are meant to enhance the image of the pontiff as a world leader and, therefore, indirectly expand Catholic clout. So Pope Francis went to the Holy Land in July and will go to Albania this month. His trip to South Korea was political. “It is a reflection of the Church’s ambitions across a continent that has more people than any other, but relatively few Catholics. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi referenced the pope’s earlier remarks about opening dialogue with the Asian nations with which the Vatican has no diplomatic ties. While China is the obvious case here, Father Lombardi also ticked off North Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Brunei and Bhutan as countries with which the pope would like to build ties,” noted the Wall Street Journal.

Although just 10 percent of the South Korean population but the fastest growing religion, Catholics “punch well above their weight, filling nearly 60, or 20 percent, of the 300 seats in the national parliament.” Of the six presidents elected in South Korea since the first free election in 1987, Kim Dae-Jung is a practicing Catholic and Roh Moo-Hyun and current president Park Geun-Hye, “were both baptized Catholics, but are non-observant….By the late 1980s, the Catholic Church was held in such respect that joining began to be seen by some as a way of taking a step up the social ladder. ‘I’m not sure if it would be accurate to say it is now seen as a religion primarily for the elite,’ said Don Baker, the director of the Centre for Korean Research at the University of British Columbia. ‘But you can say it is a religion in which the elite can feel comfortable.’”

There are actually two Churches here,” said Columban Fr. Pat Cunningham, “the Church of the bishops and the Church of the progressive minority.” As soon as the itinerary for the pope’s Aug. 14-18 trip was announced in March, “the worst fears” of the progressives were realized.

The pope would visit the Church-run Kkottongnae, or “Flower Village,” a welfare institution for close to 4,000 disabled, homeless and others marginalized by society “endorsed by the Korean hierarchy, former presidents and prominent politicians. It has received the support of the Korean Chaebols – family run transnational conglomerations such as Hyundai, Samsung and Kia – and receives monthly contributions from approximately 100,000 supporters.”

Columban Fr. Noel O’Neill led a protest in South Korea against the proposed visit to Kkottongnae. “This kind of massive institutionalization of disabled people has long been discredited in much of the world. Without overstating it, no symbolic gestures of embracing or kisses by Pope Francis will dispel the underlying truth that such a model of services is unacceptable and contrary to the very enlightened UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” O’Neill explained.

The Little Jesus Society, a Catholic religious society of priests, brothers and sisters staged a protest at the entrance to one of Kkottongnae’s sites claiming that the pontiff should not associate with the “mafia….The community has been riddled with a number of corruption scandals masterminded by [the charity’s founder and president, Fr. John Oh Woong-jin], they claimed.” Oh allegedly embezzled almost €2.55m. The Korean Supreme Court acquitted him of this charge in 2007, but others suggest he has accumulated a fortune and have asked prosecutors to investigate if the Kkottongnae foundation has used government subsidies properly.

Another protest in which Fr. O’Neill took part was held by the Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination in front of the papal nuncios residence where they handed over a letter requesting the cancellation of the pope’s visit to Kkottongnae. O’Neill said “he has documentation that shows when Pope Francis was the leader of the Church in Buenos Aires, he invited Fr. Oh to set up a similar foundation in Argentina. As Francis was called to Rome this did not materialize but Fr. O’Neill said: ‘The fact that the pope is visiting Kkottongnae is an action which tacitly shows his admiration and his approval for such a model of services for the disabled and other marginalized peoples.’”

“The division between Korean bishops and Catholic activists has grown as more conservative bishops have been appointed during the past three decades and Catholic activists have become more vocal.” Activists said the pope’s itinerary is “the product of a committee of Korean bishops who collaborated with government and Vatican officials….‘I see no connection between Francis’ Joy of the Gospel and the itinerary,’ said the director of Catholic National Federation for Justice. ‘At no time is Francis going to the margins, where he has told us the Gospel is to be lived… As it looks now, [the itinerary] reaffirms a Church that has grown wealthier and more comfortable with the local power structures’ and of the wealthier elements of society,’ the executive director of the Woori Theology Institute stated…”

“A number of lay groups came together, held a press conference [and] released a joint statement, warning the Vatican that Francis’ visit should not be ‘misused’ or ‘distorted’ by South Korean Pres. Park Geun-hye to add legitimacy to her government. They claim her December 2012 election was fraudulent, an election that has since been the focus of countless protests, many led by Catholic priests and religious.” Like Americans who petitioned Pope Francis for the removal of Newark Archbishop Myers, Kansas City Bishop Finn and Twin Cities Archbishop Nienstedt as protectors of clerical sex abusers, the Korea laity received no response to a petition asking for changes in Francis’ trip.

Like Pres. Bush who went out to the airport to greet Pope Benedict in 2008 (still the only time a presidential visitor has been accorded this honor) Pres. Park Geun-hye met Pope Francis upon his arrival at Seoul airport “with a delegation of South Korean Catholics including two North Korean defectors, as well as relatives of victims of the Sewol ferry that capsized in April, killing about 300 people, most of them school children. ‘The disaster is heart-breaking, I have not forgotten the victims,’” the pope was quoted as saying

Park’s “approval ratings have plummeted since the April 16 disaster…amid growing public criticism of how her government conducted search and rescue operations and monitored safety issues before the sinking….The disaster has caused an outburst of national grief, with family members of missing people still camping out at a port and demanding the Park government begin an official independent investigation. So far, she has not opened one, adding to outrage and more public demands.”

Pope Francis wore a yellow-ribbon pin, symbol of the tragedy. He asked his driver to stop before a group of government protesters and received applause as he accepted a petition. He baptized the father of one of the victims at a meeting with the ferry survivors and victims’ parents. He met with a father whose 17-year-old daughter died in the disaster and was on the 34th day of a hunger strike until the government allowed an investigation. “Asked by one reporter if he had entered South Korean politics, Francis answered he was responding to the suffering of hurting people. He said that responding to suffering comes above politics.”

On Aug. 26, opposition lawmakers began a sit-in to protest the Park government’s insufficient response. On Aug. 29, “Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, archbishop of Seoul, called upon families of the victims in the April Sewol ferry tragedy ‘to concede at a certain point’ their demands for an independent investigation and prosecution for the culpable…. ‘His remark on the need for the families to concede at a certain point is a little too harsh and unfeeling, especially coming from a clergyman. Instead of healing the families, Yeom has rubbed salt into their wounds,’ The Korea Herald wrote.”

Also after the pope’s visit, the Korean bishops invited the faithful go on a pilgrimage to the main places the pope visited, including Kkottongnae.

1. see Chap. 6, Betty Clermont, The NeoCatholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America (Clarity Press, 2009)
2. see Chap. 15, ibid

3 Responses

  1. Superb article! Underscores how Francis & the Vatican seek to be more Roman than Catholic.

  2. Very well said….and the current papacy does indeed have power!

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