The China/Vatican Agreement: A Human Tragedy
Pope Francis “has effectively given Xi Jinping a stamp of approval when the latter’s hostility to religious freedom couldn’t be clearer,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch.
“Watching a major world faith come to an agreement with an authoritarian government that’s notorious for repressing religious freedom and to effectively cede some authority to that government sets a very worrying precedent,” Richardson explained. “The deal came as the religious-freedom environment in China reached its worst level in years, as the government has detained Muslim citizens in illegal detention camps, increased control over churches and temples, and sought to incorporate party ideology directly into religious doctrine."
Do as I say, not as I do
On Jan. 9, 2020, Pope Francis made his annual address to the diplomatic corps assigned to the Vatican. He noted the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. He noted the foundational principles of the organization, including the pursuit of justice and respect for the dignity of the human person "remain valid today and should form the basis for international relations.”
And yet, the only government in the world other than his own that Pope Francis has authorized to appoint Catholic bishops is China.
In every year of Pope Francis’ pontificate, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has denounced the Chinese government's persecution of religion. “The Chinese government’s systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom” defined as “including torture, degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons,” according to their report for 2019.
As he did in his Jan. 9 speech, Pope Francis offered prayers for areas of particular concern in his Urbi et Orbi blessing on Christmas Day such as the Mediterranean region, the Middle East and the Americas.
The pope omitted mention of the "13 million Turkic Muslims, including Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs" against whom China has "carried out mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment" as noted in the latest Human Rights Watch report.
Retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen noted the silence on Chinese detention camps and religious repression. “Several governments have spoken out despite risks to their economic interests in China. But there has been a corner of resounding silence …. The line followed by the Vatican in recent years when dealing with the threatening China giant has been appeasement at any cost.”
In December 2014, Pope Francis rejected a meeting requested by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, because “the Vatican does not want to jeopardize efforts to improve relations with China .… China describes the Dalai Lama as a separatist and reacts angrily when foreign dignitaries meet him.”
Pope Francis conveyed 2016 Chinese New Year greetings to Pres. Xi Jinping: “The world looks to this great wisdom of yours.”
It was announced on August 5, 2016, that - after more than two years of negotiations - the Vatican and Beijing reached a preliminary agreement whereby a government-controlled organization would prepare a list of candidates for bishop and the pope would choose from among them.
China and the Vatican signed an agreement on September 22, 2018, ratifying the above. The Chinese government now appoints all Catholic bishops. By agreement, the pope can accept or reject a candidate. In reality, this has not happened and will not happen as shown below.
In January 2019, “in a move widely seen as kowtowing to Beijing, the Vatican appointed a retired China-friendly cardinal to head the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, effectively blocking the succession of the highest-ranking serving bishop [who is] known to be critical of the Chinese government.” Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous region but mainland China has been denying the people democratic rule.
They will suffer
As a precondition for China to sign the 2018 agreement, “Pope Francis had to pardon eight bishops previously installed without the approval of the Vatican who had thereby incurred automatic excommunication … In exchange, however, the pope did not obtain the corresponding recognition on the part of China of the ‘underground’ bishops consecrated by popes without the government’s agreement.”
An “underground” Catholic Church was created after the new Communist government outlawed all religion in 1949. The government tried to replace it with a Communist Party-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). But the underground Church remained loyal to the popes. Both the Vatican and China maintained their sole right to appoint bishops. The Vatican excommunicated the bishops appointed by the CPCA and the government persecuted the bishops, priests and practitioners of the underground Church. No pope up to now has recognized the CPCA as a legitimate form of Catholicism.
As to the agreement: “The Vatican is giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It's an incredible betrayal," declared Cardinal Zen.
Three days after the signing, Pope Francis gave an in-flight interview during his trip from Estonia to Rome. He was asked to respond to the accusation “of having sold the Church to the government of Beijing after so many years of suffering.”
Pope Francis said: “I was responsible for signing the case of the [excommunicated] bishops. I think of the resistance, the Catholics who have suffered. And, they will suffer. Always, in an agreement, there is suffering. The faith [of martyrs] of these people today goes ahead ….
“I signed the agreement …. I am responsible …. And, let us pray for the suffering of some who don’t understand and who have at their backs so many years of being clandestine.”
And they did suffer. In just the first two months after Sept. 22:
“A Sept. 29 report described a state notice of the closure of underground Catholic establishments in Hubei province, home to one of China’s largest such communities.”
“Four priests of the underground community were kept in a secret place for over a month, subjected to indoctrination and brainwashing to force them to join the [CPCA]."
Underground Bishop Shao Zhumin was kidnapped by the police and “indoctrinated in isolation for over ten days.”
“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. ”
“In the 50 days since the signing of the agreement, the Chinese government has launched a campaign to ‘convert’ the ‘illegal’ priests.” They are “forcefully brought to concelebrate mass with the ‘official’ bishops and then photographed to provide evidence of the ‘conversion of underground priests’" to the CPCA.
Underground Bishop Guo Xijin was “asked to step aside by the Vatican” so that he could be replaced by the state-approved bishop, Zhan Silu, one of the bishops pardoned by Pope Francis.
In November, Cardinal Zen gave Pope Francis a seven-page letter. “Underground clerics have cried to him since the Vatican-China deal,” he wrote. They said officials have forced them to join the CPCA and “obtain a priest's certificate with the reason that the pope has signed the Sino-Vatican agreement," Zen said.
“Killing the Church in China”
On June 28, 2019, the Vatican issued “Pastoral guidelines” by which all priests are obligated to register with the government.
Cardinal Zen’s reaction was to write a letter to his fellow cardinals:
“… Based on my analysis of the [guidelines] it is absolutely clear that it encourages the faithful in China to enter into a schismatic Church (independent of the Pope and under the orders of the Communist Party).
“…. Can we passively witness this killing of the Church in China on the part of those who should be protecting and defending it from its enemies?"
Underground Bishop Shao Zhumin was again taken for forced indoctrination in September 2019. A priest commented “that Bishop Shao would by no means lead the Catholic conscientious objectors to join the CPCA …. The government intends to eventually eradicate our faith.”
This November, “Pres. Xi Jinping established that an ‘independent Church’ [i.e] detached from the Vatican [and] subject to the Chinese Communist Party is the condition for Catholics to live in China."
Also in November, underground Bishop Vincenzo Guo Xijin “was put under the supervision of public security personnel [to] convince him to sign the adhesion to the Communist Party's policy …. But Guo refuses to sign in solidarity with the many priests who are persecuted.” Finally, he was taken to the state-approved bishop, Zhan Silu, one of the excommunicated bishops accepted by Pope Francis and appointed by the Vatican to replace Guo. “The police hope that Zhan will convince him to sign."
All Religion is Persecuted
In September, “China is imposing a reign of terror on religious minorities - Christian, Tibetan Buddhist, Uighur Muslim, Falun Gong and others. The state is using everything from concentration camps to facial-recognition technology to ensure that the only worship and belief allowed is that which submits to Chinese Communist orthodoxy. People who resist this mandate are ruthlessly plowed over,” reported Russell Moore in the Wall Street Journal.
On Dec. 30, the government issued “tough new rules to regulate religious activities [effective] on Feb. 1, 2020, for any religious groups operating in China …. Every aspect of religious activities, including formation, gatherings and daily projects, must be approved by the government’s religious affairs department ....
"The new rules require religious personnel to support, promote and implement total submission to the Chinese Communist Party among all members of their communities.
"If enforced, [the rules] will halt the activities of house churches, dissident Catholic communities and other unregistered religious bodies ....
A Chinese Catholic priest said: "In practice, your religion no longer matters, if you are Buddhist, or Taoist, or Muslim or Christian: the only religion allowed is faith in the Chinese Communist Party."
“As of May 1, 2020, new regulations will come into force in Tibet. Four years ago, Beijing adopted similar policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to justify repressive measures against the Uyghur minority and other Turkic Islamic communities. The Communist Party will impose responsibility for the government, businesses, community organizations, villages, schools, military groups and centers of religious activity to [adhere to the regulations]."
A “diplomatic win” for Pope Francis?
“This is a diplomatic win for Francis and his team. Whatever one thinks of the merits of making a deal,” opined the veteran Vatican reporter, John L. Allen Jr., in November 2019.
“Rome wants the ability to help shape the international agenda that comes from full diplomatic relations with one of the world’s economic and military superpowers, and a nation whose population represents almost one-fifth of humanity,” Allen wrote.
Johnnie Moore, Commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, disagrees:
“My personal opinion is that one of the most alarming incidents as it relates to religious freedom in the entire year  was the decision by the Vatican to negotiate a diplomatic relationship with China that resulted in the recognition of government appointed bishops and which also - in effect - deposed prominent Chinese religious leaders who had persevered through horrific persecution in previous generations in China, including China’s most well-known Catholic leader.
"Literally, within days of the Vatican negotiating its deal, the Chinese used it as cover to embark upon the closure of several of the nation’s largest and most prominent unregistered church communities. That has continued.
"Being that the Vatican is both a Church and a State, it is my opinion that the Vatican now bears a significant moral and legal responsibility to help solve the problem which it helped created- albeit inadvertently - by providing China license to viciously crack down on Christian communities (as cited in this report), and by providing the Chinese government further cover to continue its incomprehensible, inexcusable and inhumane abuses of Muslim citizens in the western part of the country. While I am entirely for direct engagement on these issues, including with the most severe violators in the world, that engagement must not result in these types of unintended consequences, as has been the case in China. The Vatican made a terrible mistake, which it must take seriously. This debacle must be dealt with urgently and seriously."
Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America.