On January 22, 2017, in an interview with the Spanish daily El País, Pope Francis said, “In China the churches are full.You can practice religion in China.”
It was a statement that raised eyebrows among those who have long followed the history of Christianity under Communist regimes, of which China is certainly no exception. China, in fact, is ranked independently as one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world. In 1951, under the leadership of Chinese Communist revolutionary and founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, the Chinese government and the Vatican officially severed diplomatic ties. With the officially-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association following a similar line to that of the portions of the French Church that went along with the Revolutionary Government’s “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” in 1790, the formation of an underground — and persecuted — Church in China was inevitable.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said that the Catholic Patriotic Association was “incompatible with Catholic doctrine,” and spoke of their interference with the ordination of bishops as a matter he could not permit if he wanted to. “The authority of the Pope to appoint bishops is given to the church by its founder Jesus Christ.” He said. “It is not the property of the Pope, neither can the Pope give it to others.”
But under Pope Francis, the Vatican has been moving toward what Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, calls a “new Ostpolitik.” From early in his papacy, Francis has been moving toward more positive relations with Beijing, though as the outspoken Zen has warned, signing agreement with Chinese leadership “means delivering the authority to appoint bishops into the hands of an atheist government.” It was only ten years ago that the late Cardinal Kung spoke of the plight of Chinese Catholics who will not participate in the state-sanctioned analog of the Catholic Church:
I believe that most if not all of you who are here today understand that there is no religious freedom in China. Yet you may be shocked to learn that all of the approximately 40 underground bishops in China have been either arrested and are now in jail, or under house arrest, or under strict surveillance, or in hiding, or simply have disappeared.
We know for sure that six bishops are now in jail. … They are all in their 70’s or 80’s. Three of them have disappeared. (HAN, Shi and SU). Out of these three, Bishop Su has disappeared for approximately 10 years, Bishop Han has just disappeared approximately one year ago after being detained approximately 5 years, Bishop SHI has disappeared almost six years. We do not know whether they are dead or alive.
Priests, seminarians, nuns and laypersons face similar harassment. We know for sure that there are approximately 25 of them in jail or in labor camps. This list is by no means complete, because of the difficulties in obtaining details. Many cases are not reported here. My educated guess is that there are hundreds in jail. Sometimes, the government simply removes a priest or bishop and do not place them into the jail system, so that there is no official record of this religious prisoner. This is one of the new methods of persecuting the underground church.
Cardinal John Tong, the Pope Benedict-appointed successor to Carzinal Zen’s see in Hong Kong, is more sanguine about the development:
China and the Vatican have reached consensus on the appointment of bishops, which will lead to the resolution of other outstanding problems, Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong has said.
“From now on, there will be no more the crisis of a division between the open and underground communities in the Church in China,” the cardinal said.
“On the contrary, these two communities will gradually move toward reconciliation and communion on the aspects of law, pastoral care and relationships. The Church in China will work together to preach the gospel of Jesus on the soil of China.”
In a letter published on Thursday, Cardinal Tong noted that China and the Vatican have different interests, so they will prioritise remaining problems differently.
Cardinal Tong said the Sino-Vatican dialogue indicates that China now will “let the Pope play a role in the nomination and ordination of Chinese bishops.” Since, under Church law, the Pope has the final say in the appointment of bishops, this would solve several problems, he said.
“Beijing will also recognise the Pope’s right of veto and that the Pope is the highest and final authority in deciding on candidates for bishops in China,” he said.
The Catholic Patriotic Association advocates the “self-nomination and self-ordination” of bishops, but if the agreement on papal approval of bishops is reached, that principle will become history, he said.
“If the Pope has the final word about the worthiness and suitability of an episcopal candidate, the elections of local churches and the recommendations of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China will simply be a way to express recommendations,” Cardinal Tong said.
Thus far, Cardinal Zen has not spoken out on the most recent developments in Sino-Vatican relations. But in November of last year, he made clear, once again, his opposition to any such agreement, calling it “absolutely unacceptable”:
Rome would commit to recognize as bishops only those clerics who first win nomination from the Patriotic Association’s bishops conference. This would make the church “totally subservient to an atheist government,” says Cardinal Zen, and may require the Vatican to cut ties to the true church underground.
Though he says state-backed bishops are generally “wonderful men” and “very faithful to the church,” Cardinal Zen laments that all are nonetheless “slaves” and “puppets.” Only someone ignorant of communism, he says, could think the nominations the government sends to Rome wouldn’t be coerced. Having taught in Chinese seminaries from 1989 to 1996, he recalls that state bishops couldn’t meet or even place international calls without government bosses present.
Cardinal Zen slams Vatican diplomats who say that embracing the Patriotic Association is needed to preserve the church’s hierarchy and sacraments. “I would prefer no bishops,” he says. “With fake bishops you are destroying the church.”
That’s what nearly happened in Hungary and other Soviet satellites in the 1970s after Rome embraced an Ostpolitik (“Eastern Policy”) of cooperation with Communist authorities. “The Churches in those countries have not been saved through the Vatican diplomacy,” he wrote recently, “but thanks to the unswerving faith of the simple faithful!”
He believes the same would happen in China if the Vatican refused to bow to Beijing. “The underground church is evangelizing very well,” he notes, even as authorities have destroyed 1,000 church crosses since 2013 and kept underground bishop James Su Zhimin in secret detention for two decades. “Also in the official church there are so many good people. . . . They are not afraid. Why should you surrender?”
“Pope Francis has no real knowledge of communism,” the cardinal laments. He blames Francis’ experience in Argentina, where military dictators and rich elites did evil while actual or accused communists suffered trying to help the downtrodden. “So the Holy Father knew the persecuted communists, not the communist persecutors. He knew the communists killed by the government, not the communist governments who killed thousands and hundreds of thousands of people.” (In China it was tens of millions.)
“I’m sorry to say that in his goodwill he has done many things which are simply ridiculous,” the cardinal says of the pope. These include his approaches to both China and Cuba, the other communist state he has courted at the apparent expense of human rights. But still he’s the pope, so even if he signs a bad deal Cardinal Zen says he won’t protest once it’s done.
His message to the faithful in that case: You’re never obligated to act against conscience. “You are not bound to join the Patriotic Association. You can pray at home if you lose your churches.” An underground priest who loses his flock can go home and till the soil. “You’re still a priest anyway,” he says. “So wait for better times. But don’t rebel against the pope.”
The Cardinal’s concerns may fall on deaf ears in Rome, but his warnings will be taken to heart by Catholics around the world. “You’re never obligated to act against conscience.” “You can pray at home if you lose your churches.” As it appears more and more likely that Catholics outside of China will be facing similar choices, wisdom like this from one of the Church’s true apostles is a precious grace indeed.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.