Two months out, the China-Holy See provisional agreement on episcopal appointments is proving to be yet another tool for Beijing to suppress the Chinese faithful. And its damage goes even deeper than the Chinese government’s selection of Catholic bishops, as critical as that is for the hierarchically structured Roman Catholic Church.
In asserting state control over religion, Chinese President Xi Jinping continues the harshest crackdown since the Cultural Revolution against all religions, the Catholic Church included, as documented by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Meanwhile, the agreement gives the Chinese regime moral cover and provides it with new opportunities for influencing religious matters at home and in Rome.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who oversaw the Church’s negotiations, concedes that it is “not a good agreement,” but stresses its historic significance for unifying the Chinese Catholic Church with the Pope as head. Beijing, however, seems intent on seeing unity on its terms and relegating the Pope as a figurehead of the Church in China.
The text of the agreement remains secret, but it reportedly gives the officially atheist Chinese government the right to nominate bishops and grants the Pope veto power. A papal veto could lead to more vacant dioceses than the 12 at present. And, if September is a precedent, then the Pope has only the right to rubber-stamp: Pope Francis admitted into full ecclesial communion all seven government bishops who were excommunicated or otherwise deemed canonically illegitimate in Church eyes and appointed two of them to replace “underground” bishops as diocesan heads. No other appointments were made. Pope Francis teared up in welcoming these bishops into the Church and for the unity this seemed to suggest.
China’s some 30 underground bishops — appointed by the Vatican over Beijing’s objection — as Pope Francis said, “will suffer” from the deal. Reportedly the new agreement omits all reference to them, and none has yet been accepted by Beijing.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, bitterly denounced the agreement as a “betrayal” by the Vatican. But one wonders if the Vatican wasn’t the party betrayed — by Beijing.
One day after the Sept. 22 signing, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Council of Chinese bishops, the two state structures that oversee some 60 Chinese bishops recognized by both the Vatican and Beijing, posted on their websites a vow to adhere to the principles of “independence” from the Vatican and “sinicization,” a term for the state’s push to consolidate control over religion. The persecution of underground Catholics is now demonstrably “more than before” the Sept. 22 agreement, according to an assessment of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.
A Sept. 29 report describes a state notice of the closure of underground Catholic establishments in Hebei province, home to one of China’s largest such communities. Four underground priests — Fathers Zhang Guilin, Wang Zhong, Su Guipeng and Zhao He — were detained during October and November. Furthermore, in November, Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of the Diocese of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province was arrested and detained. Church sources state that this Vatican-consecrated underground bishop is being held in isolation for indoctrination and interrogation.
Twelve other Catholic bishops and priests remain imprisoned or missing. China refuses to provide information on them. They include Baoding Bishop James Su Zhimin, detained for 20 years, and Father Liu Honggeng, arrested three years ago, whose prison diary recently surfaced, revealing his readiness to die for his faith.
The 6 million Catholics in the underground Church remain in a precarious position. They could be detained en masse in re-education camps like the Uighur Muslims are now in western China. These faithful wait for papal instruction on whether to submit to the state’s Patriotic Association, I was told by the Cardinal Kung Foundation. (The foundation was founded in Connecticut by the family of the first underground bishop, the late Cardinal Kung Pin-Mei, of Shanghai, imprisoned for 30 years for refusing to renounce papal authority and whose 1951 arrest ruptured Vatican diplomatic ties with China. )
In October, in Hubei, the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department and the Patriotic Association convened a session to “re-educate the priests.” From Oct. 3-12, authorities toppled the crosses from Catholic churches in Zhumadian, Henan; Lingkun in Wenzhou; and Zhejiang and Luoyang, Henan; respectively. On Oct. 25, authorities finished demolishing two popular Catholic pilgrimage shrines, Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows in Shanxi and Our Lady of the Mountain in Guizhou.
But all 12 million Chinese Catholics, not only the underground half, are suppressed. Youth under age 18 are banned from churches, under new religious-law regulations. In September, the Communist Party previewed a cybersecurity law that will censor from the internet mention by nongovernmental sites of Catholicism, including the Mass and baptism.
The Catechism is subject to censorship. Online Bible sales were banned in April. Catholic sources deem it an “all-around strangulation” of evangelization. Some Catholic churches have replaced Jesus’ picture with President Xi’s, and the congregation is led in songs of praise to the Communist Party.
China’s new Orwellian social credit score system, to control behavior and based on government-gathered data, also poses a threat to the Church. Civil authorities in Zhejiang and Jiangxi Sept. 26 forced their employees, including in schools and hospitals, to pledge not to hold any “religious beliefs.”
Since July, priests in Henan must register and turn over the numbers of the faithful and their socioeconomic conditions to the government. Surveillance cameras are inside some churches and police are outside. Chinese Catholics will think twice about going to confession when their priests must report on them. Clerics will not dare to preach Church teachings against abortion and the death penalty.
Being too enthusiastic about religion can also be punished, as Father Liu Jiangdong, from the government-recognized Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Zhengzhou (Henan), found out on Sept. 23. The priest was detained for a week and then suspended from the priesthood by the Patriotic Association, reportedly for organizing too many youth and elderly parish groups.
Francis’ Sept. 26 letter to the Chinese faithful asked for their trust but provided no further agreement details. Cardinal Zen responded with a question, bringing into crystalline focus just how damaging the agreement is to papal authority. He said:
“So, what is the message the Holy See intends to send to the faithful in China with this statement? he asks in the letter. ‘Have faith in us, accept what we have decided’(?) And what will the government say to Catholics in China? ‘Obey us, the Holy See already agrees with us’(?)”
China can now gain influence and legitimacy through Vatican soft power, such as exchanges that Cardinal Parolin proffered as a plus of the agreement. The first occurred in Rome in October, when two Chinese bishops, including one who was formerly excommunicated, participated in the Vatican’s youth synod. A synod attendee told me that there was no apparent mention of Chinese persecution — not even a single question on youth being banned from churches.
In late October, three more Chinese bishops arrived for an Italian Catholic peace conference. George Weigel has written extensively of the Vatican’s Cold War Ostpolitik policy, which allowed communist apparatchiks to infiltrate similar conferences, the Second Vatican Council and Vatican Radio.
The welcome mat is out for Chinese government officials, too. Pontifical Academies of Sciences chancellor Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo made headlines praising China’s “moral leadership” on the environment, for “best implementing” Church social doctrine, and as a “model” of freedom. This year, he invited China’s Organ Transplantation Committee chairman, Huang Jiefu, to speak on organ trafficking, despite China’s reported harvesting of organs from imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners. In October, an exhibition in Switzerland was canceled over evidence that the dissected human bodies on display were likely those of killed Falun Gong prisoners.
Meanwhile, a coveted papal visit to China will take further negotiations and concessions (possibly severing diplomatic relations with Taiwan, a country respecting religious freedom).
The Vatican has put its moral and teaching authority on the line in its agreement with China. It has done so when China is doubling down on its goal of controlling religion until it is eliminated, adding high-tech tactics to time-worn primitive ones. The only saving grace of this agreement is that it is “provisional.”
Nina Shea is the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.