VALLETTA, Malta – Prior to Feb. 24, there was a possibility, however slim, that Moscow might have succeeded in making a case that Russian-speaking populations in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk had legitimate grievances with Kyiv, and that their bid for autonomy enjoyed at least a degree of moral legitimacy.

Once Putin opted for power over persuasion by launching an all-out invasion, however, that opportunity was lost. Not only has the offensive backfired militarily, but it’s generated an unprecedented show of global support for Ukraine despite whatever its record in the Donbass actually may be.

The lesson here is that hard power is often the enemy of soft power, sometimes transforming your enemy into a martyr and yourself into the bad guy.

Beijing finds itself facing the implications of that lesson today, albeit in a lesser way, following the arrest on Wednesday of 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen for alleged violations of Hong Kong’s security act, specifically “collusion with foreign forces.”

Had China been paying attention, it would have realized that over the last few years, Zen had become increasingly marginalized in the Francis papacy because of his strident criticism of the Vatican’s deal with Beijing over the appointment of bishops and also his growing ties to other well-known Francis critics, most prominently Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

Famously, Zen traveled to Rome in October 2020 to attempt to influence Francis’s selection of a new bishop for Hong Kong. The overture came after rumors that the planned appointment of Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha had been withdrawn because he was photographed at pro-democracy protests, suggesting another form of Vatican deference to Chinese sensibilities.

Zen, however, couldn’t even get a meeting with the pope, indicating that he was effectively being frozen out. The fact that the Vatican renewed the China deal over his express objections offered confirmation of the point.

That sign of papal displeasure came in the context of Zen calling the Vatican line on China “sickening,” and charged that the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, had told “a series of lies with open eyes.”

It also came after signs that Zen’s displeasure with the China deal was morphing into anti-Francis resistance in other areas. For example, Zen was a signatory to an open letter penned by Viganò in May 2020, claiming the coronavirus pandemic was being manipulated to impose authoritarian modes of government around the world.

“The imposition of these illiberal measures is a disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control,” the letter claimed, asserting that “under the pretext of wiping out a virus, centuries of Christian civilization could be erased” and an “odious technological tyranny” could be established.

Other signatories included the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller and the emeritus Archbishop of Riga, Cardinal Janis Pujats, neither of whom would exactly figure on lists of favorites in this papacy.

It’s reasonable to assume, therefore, that had China done nothing, Zen likely would have remained inconsequential in shaping papal policy and enjoyed a cachet only in deeply conservative circles with axes to grind with this papacy on multiple fronts. In other words, Beijing wouldn’t have had much to worry about, at least as far as Rome goes.

Now, however, Francis can’t afford to ignore Zen, because his arrest (and whatever may come next in terms of a prosecution and even possible incarceration) is destined to generate sympathy and activism on Zen’s behalf all across the world.

Late Wednesday, the Vatican issued a statement stating that “the Holy See has received the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest with concern, and is following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention.”

Benedict Rogers of Hong Kong Watch called the arrest “unbelievably horrific,” while Sam Brownback, a former U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom and a Republican, along with Democratic activist Katrina Swett, said the Chinese Communist Party had “sunk to a new low” with its action against the nonagenarian prelate.

Assuming that Chinese officials intend to move forward with the charges, these won’t be one-off reactions but the prelude to a global campaign, one in which Catholic leaders at all levels will be pressured to play lead roles. In effect, Zen would become the new Cardinal József Mindszenty, the Hungarian prelate whose incarceration by the Soviets and subsequent exile in the US embassy in Budapest was a Catholic cause célèbre during the Cold War.

Whatever their own beefs with bishops may be, Catholics across the board don’t take kindly to seeing them tossed behind bars after show trials just because of their political convictions.

To begin with, the net effect almost certainly would be to invest Zen with greater moral authority, and a bigger voice in the global Catholic conversation. For sure, were Zen to travel to Rome today, it’s impossible to imagine that the pope wouldn’t find space for him on his calendar.

More broadly, the Zen affair, especially if Beijing compounds its initial miscalculation by actually finding him guilty of something, also will dial up the pressure on the Vatican to rethink its entire China policy, especially the deal on bishops.

If putting a cardinal in jail is how China shows its bilateral consideration for the Vatican, the reasoning would go, what exactly has been gained by this deal which justifies giving away a significant measure of control over the appointment of the country’s Catholic leadership?

It’s often said by critics, including Zen himself, that the Vatican just doesn’t understand China. The cardinal’s arrest, however, would appear to demonstrate that there’s an equal-and-opposite tendency for China not to understand the Vatican, or, for that matter, the Catholic Church writ large.