Parolin and the China Negotiations: First, Do No Harm

Not long after I became Catholic in the early nineties, I traveled to China to learn more about the fate of my fellow believers under communism. They were divided into two opposing camps, or so I believed at the time, with some belonging to the state-controlled church – the so-called Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association – while others belonged to the Catholic Church in communion with Rome.

Truth be told, I did not think much of those who attended the “Patriotic churches.” I believed that these were small-“c” catholics who had compromised with, or entirely capitulated to, the party’s demands to sever ties with the Universal Church and its head, the bishop of Rome.

My sympathy was reserved for the Catholics of the Underground Church. These were bishops, priests, and lay Catholics who had courageously refused the oarty’s demands to break with Rome in 1958. Instead, they had gone into the catacombs, risking arrest, imprisonment, torture, and sometimes even death to remain faithful. Led over the decades by brave bishops secretly ordained by the pope, these Catholics had endured decades of persecution while remaining loyal to the one true faith.

In short, I believed that the members of the Underground Church were heroic, while the pewsitters in the Patriotic Church were more or less craven.

Then I paid a call to the Vatican’s unofficial emissary to China, whom we will call Monsignor Nonini.

The monsignor’s status was, of course, anomalous, given the lack of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China. He was accredited to the Republic of China on Taiwan and had his offices in British-governed Hong Kong, but nearly all of his day-to-day work involved dealing with the Church in China.

Monsignor Nonini was in close contact with the bishops of both the Underground and the Patriotic churches and had a surprising – and much more encouraging – story to tell about their relationship with each other, and with Rome.

“The deep divisions of the past are well on their way to being healed,” he told me. “After the end of the Cultural Revolution there was a general amnesty declared, and the Underground bishops and priests who had been imprisoned for decades for refusing to join the Patriotic church were released from jail and have been evangelizing throughout China.”

As far as the Patriotic church was concerned, Nonini surprised me by stating that one hundred percent of the laity, and nearly all its priests and bishops, had remained loyal to the Magisterium. “Nearly all the illicitly ordained bishops have asked the Holy Father to be recognized as legitimate,” he told me. “And nearly all, after we examine their character and behavior, have been so recognized. The only exceptions are the Patriotic bishops of Beijing, Shanghai, and a couple of other major cities. They have made too many compromises.”

He summed up by saying, “The Church is more unified now than at any time since the Communist Revolution. Churches are being rebuilt, and seminaries are being reopened. Although it may appear from the outside that there are still two churches in China, inside of China, there is only one.”

I was overjoyed to learn that the Underground Church was increasingly able to come out of the catacombs and was, in many parts of China, openly preaching the Gospel and making converts. Even more surprising to me was that the Patriotic church, which had begun as a communist front organization intended to co-opt and gradually extinguish Catholicism throughout China, had been transformed from within by faithful Catholics who saw themselves as part of the Universal Church.

The newfound unity of Catholics in China that Msgr. Nonini described to me had nothing to do with either political pressure from the party or political overtures to Beijing by Vatican diplomats. It had come about from the bottom up, not from the top down.

It was not a perfect solution – some of the deep wounds of decades of politically fomented division remained – but it was a workable one. It had, after all, been worked out at the parish and diocesan levels by the real stakeholders – Chinese Catholics themselves – with the quiet encouragement and support of the then-holy father, Pope John Paul II.

The officially atheistic Communist Party and its agents remained a brooding, hostile presence over both church communities but by common agreement was kept out of the local arrangements that allowed Catholics from both to coexist, even cooperate. Underground bishops, with the permission of the Vatican, named their own successors. The Patriotic Association named its own bishops, but these then almost always sought, and almost always got, consecration by the pope.

This was the more or less happy situation that obtained in the long-suffering Chinese Church at the dawn of the 21st century.

Then the Vatican Secretariat of State, which has representatives in all but a handful of countries around the world, decided to enter into formal talks with the PRC. Pietro Cardinal Parolin, who had earlier been involved with the establishment of diplomatic relations with Mexico and ongoing negotiations with Vietnam, was put in charge of the effort. He established direct contact with Beijing in 2005 with the goal of signing a written agreement with the atheistic regime over the appointment of bishops.

This was a major blunder on several counts.

First, it drew the attention of the Chinese Party-State to the activities of the Catholic Church in China. Whereas Mexico has been predominantly Catholic for centuries, and Vietnam has one of the largest Catholic populations in Asia, Catholics in China were a small minority, scattered in communities throughout the length and breadth of China. As such, they were able to evangelize, build churches, and even open seminaries, all while attracting relatively little hostile attention from the central government. “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away,” as the Chinese say.

Once Beijing entered into formal negotiations with the Vatican, however, the Party-State began to pay a lot more attention to the activities of the domestic followers of this “hostile foreign power.” In other words, the mere fact of negotiations put a target on the backs of Chinese Catholics. The “space” in which it had operated began to shrink under the unblinking eye of state surveillance.

Vatican diplomats seem not to have realized that they were dealing with a one-party dictatorship that was far more brutal, and far less tolerant of any expressions of religious faith, than Mexico in the 1990s or Vietnam in the 2000s. For in the view of the CCP, all belief in transcendental religions, especially those with foreign connections like Catholicism, is suspect, even treasonous.

The problem goes even deeper than this. As I write in Bully of Asia, since the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, the Chinese Communist Party has been promoting an extremely toxic form of national narcissism. The Chinese people are constantly being told that they, their culture, and their country are naturally superior to any other people, culture, or country that has ever existed. To be numbered among the descendants of the dragon, party propaganda insists, is to be part of the greatest phenomenon in human history. It means that you are part of the “Kingdom at the Center of the Earth” and that you deserve dominion over the lesser folk from the fringes.

The state religion of China, in other words, is China itself. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is its catechism, the members of the party are its priesthood, and “core leader” Xi Jinping serves as its high priest. The whole of China serves as its temple, within whose sacred precincts its people are encouraged to worship their own collective greatness – and “core leader” Xi, of course.

This is why Cardinal Parolin’s insistence to Chinese leaders that “the Church in China does not want replace the state” fails to allay their suspicions. It draws upon a Western Church-state distinction that simply did not exist in Chinese history and that the Chinese Communist Party, in the present moment, is doing its level best to extinguish once again.

Indeed, this and other ill informed statements may actually heighten the suspicions of China’s senior leaders, given that they believe, along with China’s ancient strategist, Sun Tzu, that “all warfare is deception.” But even if they accept Cardinal Parolin’s claim that in China (unlike, say, in Poland) the Church does not want to replace the state as state, there is still the problem that it wants to replace the state as church. In China, remember, the state aspires to be the church, and all Chinese are expected to be loyal members.

But perhaps the biggest blunder made by Vatican diplomats in their on-again, off-again negotiations with China has been insisting, after the fashion in Western diplomatic circles, on the need for a formal written agreement. An informal understanding would have been far more appropriate in the Chinese cultural context.

Consider the position of a communist functionary in the Bureau of Religious Affairs who is, shall we say, not unsympathetic to the Catholic Church. Such a functionary might well find it possible to keep to the terms of an informal understanding about the creation of bishops, even if the terms of that understanding were not entirely pleasing to his superiors.

There is a precedent for such a situation. There was, for a while, an informal arrangement between the Bureau of Religious Affairs and the Vatican to the effect that the former would nominate, and the latter would approve, new bishops for the Patriotic church.

That arrangement, not surprisingly, went aground not long after formal negotiations began in 2005. Why? Primarily because the Vatican asked for it to be put in writing. As a result of this blunder, at least eight bishops have been illegally “ordained” by the Chinese Communist Party in the years since.

It is not hard to see why asking a communist functionary to draw up a formal written agreement would end any hope of real compromise. What functionary would dare draw up, much less urge his superiors to sign, an agreement giving the Vatican – which is to say a foreign power – any real control over the appointment of Chinese bishops in a Chinese-run church? Party leaders would be apoplectic at the mere suggestion that China’s sovereignty be violated in this way. Any functionary who suggested otherwise would, at a minimum, be removed.

As if the above missteps by Vatican diplomats were not enough, China itself, under Xi Jinping’s dictatorial rule, is becoming more and more hostile to religious belief and expression. At last October’s Party Congress, Xi demanded tighter controls over religious activity, insisting that the party “exercise overall leadership over all areas of endeavor in every part of the country.”

As a result, new regulations banning unauthorized religious activity were issued on February 1. According to a priest of the Underground Church, the new rules state that “all religious sites must be registered, no religious activities can be held beyond registered venues, non-registered clergymen are forbidden to host religious liturgies, and that minors and party members are forbidden from entering churches. … The living space for the Church is getting less and less.”

Has anyone in the Vatican read these new regulations, which make it clear that China is quickly reverting to Maoist type? Has it occurred to anyone there that now may be a particularly inauspicious time to force the Underground Church into the embrace of the Chinese Communist Party?

Despite Beijing’s increasing intransigence, Cardinal Parolin has continued to pursue a written agreement. His unseemly eagerness has made it clear to everyone, not least to his counterparts in Beijing, that he would accede to almost any demand. Not surprisingly, Beijing has gone for the jugular: the complete extinction of the Underground Church, starting with its bishops.

In order to reach an agreement, China informed the Vatican’s Secretary of State, two things must happen.

First, the holy father must, without exception, consecrate all the Patriotic bishops that he and Pope Benedict, for very good reasons, had previously rejected.

Second, he must eliminate the Underground Church, starting with its bishops. Elderly Underground bishops must be forcibly retired and replaced with Patriotic bishops of Beijing’s choosing, while younger Underground bishops must be reassigned to subordinate roles in the Patriotic church.

On the mere promise of a future agreement, the Vatican has bowed to these demands. This is why we have recently been treated to the heartbreaking spectacle of 88-year-old Underground bishop Peter Zhuang being forced, by Cardinal Parolin’s emissaries, to hand over his Shantou diocese to excommunicated Patriotic bishop Huang Bingzhang. This is also why a younger Patriotic bishop, Joseph Guo of Fujian province, has been demoted to be an assistant to an illegitimate Patriotic bishop.

This process will obviously continue until the last of the 30-odd Underground bishops have been sidelined and silenced, one way or another.

It is the prospect of this “sell-out” of the Underground Church that sent Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen to Rome, to plead the cause of his Chinese co-believers to the holy father himself.

Pope Francis reportedly told Cardinal Zen that “we don’t want another Mindszenty.”

But these wrongheaded, politically naïve negotiations have already created, in Bishop Zhuang, “another Mindszenty.”

And now we have the prospect of several dozen more to follow.

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