In recent days five Filipino Catholic bishops, led by Archbishop Socrates “Soc” Villegas, OP of the Lingayen-Dagupan Archdiocese, exercised strong and courageous leadership by issuing a statement condemning the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the China Coast Guard (CCG) for aggressively targeting the fishing and aquatic resources of the Philippines and the culture, lives, and livelihoods of their country’s fisherfolk. 

The bishops’ statement spotlights an almost-decade-long flouting by the PRC/CCP of what is commonly known as the United Nation’s “Law of the Sea” and a unanimous U.N.-sanctioned tribunal ruling that struck down the PRC’s claim over the West Philippine Sea.  Of course, the PRC/CCP immediately declared the ruling null and void, that it had no binding force, and began flagrantly violating it.  

The Filipino bishops are righteously tending their flocks that have been stalked, harassed, and blocked from fishing in their ancestral, territorial waters. “[I]f present diplomatic efforts do not suffice, then it is permissible  – morally necessary even – to have recourse to the friendship of allies who can help us defend what is ours!”, the bishops’ letter reads, adding, “A policy of appeasing the Chinese aggressors is worsening the situation of our poor fisherfolk.”

In highlighting the plight of the fishing industry, defending their people and standing up to the Chinese abuses and provocations, the Filipino bishops are exercising long-held Christian realism – in the tradition of Pope Saint John Paul II during the Cold War – that should be supported by the West and our friends, allies, and partners in the East.

What the Filipino bishops are exercising is a continued rejection of the failed policy of Ostpolitik (New Eastern Policy) the Vatican maintained during the Cold War to encounter and counter the Soviet Union and the governments of Communist Europe.  

The strategy of Ostpolitik, forged by Archbishop Agostino Casaroli for the Catholic Church, had an objective of modus non moriendi  – a “way to avoid death.”  Tactically, it strove to continue its pastoral mission with sufficient freedoms behind the Iron Curtain by acquiescing, negotiating, or cooperating on matters such as the appointment of bishops, and having clergy and laity not being overly critical of the Communist regimes and their heavy-handed ways. 

For thirty years, the late Archbishop of Warsaw, and Primate of Poland, Blessed Stefan Wyszynski, the spiritual leader of Poland at the time, stood in opposition to its totalitarian Communist government and its ideology, shrewdly resisting Ostpolitik, while treading a delicate line between resistance and compromise.

John Paul learned from his mentor Wyszynski and, after his election as Pope, took up his mantle of the spiritual leader of the Polish people.  Bolstering his reputation to fearlessly speak directly on politically sensitive or controversial issues, he spoke truth to the political realm, pivoting away from Ostpolitik.

In his 1979 Christmas message to the Polish people he referenced Saint Stanislaw as “the patron of moral order in our country, of that moral order which is so needed in our time – (and) and advocate of the most essential human rights, on which man’s dignity, his morality, and true freedom depend.”  This was the early months of John Paul’s highly visible human rights campaign as a pastor, not as a diplomat or a politician, that was integral to the collapse of Soviet Communism and the end of the first Cold War. Without JPII’s evolution away from the Ostpolitik of his mentor Wyszynski, the demise of the Soviet Union may not have begun in Poland.

The world now finds itself in the midst of a new Cold War, one in which a totalitarian Chinese regime rejects the dignity of the human person, the existence of God, and moral truth itself. World leaders are seeing this manifested in many ways – from Chinese labor camps within its own borders, to enslaved laborers elsewhere in Asia and Africa, indiscriminate theft of intellectual property across the globe, and flouting of trade and business laws and practices. And, this flagrant disregard for international law is on display when Chinese fishermen lower their nets with impunity in the rich fishing grounds of the West Philippine Sea.

In plain terms, the Filipino bishops are standing in opposition to the Communist government of the PRC, and its ideology, in stark contrast to the Vatican’s latter-day Ostpolitik – 新東方政策in Mandarin: Rome’s 2018 deal sought to maintain its pastoral mission inside China in the same way Rome abdicated its moral standing to Soviet thugs last century. 

Just as the PRC/CCP violates the territorial sovereignty of the Philippines and the rights of their fisherfolk, the PRC/CCP is flagrantly violating the terms of the Vatican “deal,” including the destruction of Catholic churches, the disappearance and house arrest of Catholic bishops, and forced “re-education” of Catholic clergy.

The Filipino bishops have learned from the statecraft of John Paul II. By speaking against the aggressive and criminal Chinese incursions against their flocks, harassment which threaten the dignity of the individual and attack the sovereignty of the Philippines, the bishops are courageously defending the rules-based international order. Their action is a model, not just for their brother bishops around the globe, but for all world leaders should the iron curtain of the PRC/CCP descend further on our fellow man.