Report from Rome: What Do Vatican Officials Think to Gain in their Agreement with China? (And What Will Chinese Catholics Lose?)

Image:  Xi Jinping, painted portrait _DDC2126 from Abode of Chaos. (CC 2.0)

After expressing my concerns from afar about the Vatican’s proposed agreement with the China here and here, I decided to go to Rome to talk directly with senior Vatican officials.

As someone who has worked with the Chinese Catholics for decades, I wanted to find out what these officials thought the Church would gain from inking an agreement with the Chinese Communist Party.  I also wanted to let them know that, in my opinion, such an agreement would be seen by Chinese believers as nothing short of a rank betrayal.

So it was that last week in Rome I met with several officials who, for well over a decade, have been directly involved in the long-running Vatican-China negotiations.  I found them to be intelligent, attentive, thoughtful, and candid. I have been invited back for further discussions, so I would rather not reveal their names.  But to give you a sense of what these prelates are thinking when it comes to China, I recount one such conversation below.

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I began my meeting with Archbishop X by describing how China under Xi Jinping is descending into a new Cultural Revolution. It is important for him to know that the tolerance of ten or fifteen years ago has been replaced by outright hostility to the Church.

“Xi is the new Red Emperor, and the more power he accumulates, the more tyrannical he becomes,” I told him. “He is purging his enemies under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign.”

Over 1.5 million Communist Party officials have been charged with corruption over the past five years, I went on, yet not a single one of Xi’s own supporters has been charged. And now that Xi is President for Life, the purge is expanding.  Everyone who criticizes Xi is in the crosshairs.

“I was recently told by a Chinese visitor that Xi had no choice but to stay on,” the Archbishop responded. “He told me that corruption was so deeply entrenched in China that it would take Xi another 20 years to root it out.  So naturally he had no choice but to stay on as President to finish the job.”

We both laughed at the absurdity of this explanation, which the prelate himself dismissed as “fantastical.”

“Xi already has more power than Mao Zedong,” I continued. “He is not only the head of the Communist Party, as Mao was, but is also the head of the government and of the military, which Mao wasn’t. His cult of personality is growing. Like Mao, he wants the Chinese people to worship him, not the God of the Bible. That is why Xi Jinping has been tightening controls on religious activities of all kinds.”

Over the past few years of Xi’s rule, Chinese believers have faced an increasingly harsh reality.   Crosses have been pulled down and churches demolished. Priests and bishops have been imprisoned and tortured.

The new regulations, issued on February 1, are even worse. They make it illegal to take one’s own children to Mass, require all Catholics to register with the government, and forbid illegal religious assemblies, including catechism and Sunday school classes. “These new regulations are intended to stamp out Catholicism,” I told him.

We talked at length about the on-again, off-again negotiations that he and others have been carrying on with the Chinese authorities.  The Archbishop gave me to understand that a draft agreement concerning the joint appointment of bishops had been finalized: “We are waiting for the Chinese to move forward.”

“I predict that the Chinese Communists will never move forward with the agreement,” I responded. “The people you have been dealing with in the Bureau of Religious Affairs are no longer in power. The Bureau itself has been dissolved. Xi has given responsibility for religious matters to the United Front Department of the Chinese Communist Party. This means that Xi doesn’t want to simply regulate the activities of the Catholic Church in China. He wants to eliminate the Church entirely.”

An agreement might have been possible 15 years ago, under the weak leadership of then-President Hu Jintao. At that point most of the bishops of China, even the Patriotic ones, had been recognized as licit bishops by the Holy Father. But in recent years the Communist Party has been “ordaining” more and more illicit bishops. “I think that these ordinations by the Patriotic Church will continue,” I told him.

“Yes, there are now seven illicitly ordained Patriotic bishops,” the Archbishop agreed sadly. He then went on to say, almost plaintively: “We are trying to prevent a schism.”

Here was the crux of the matter: He and other senior officials in the Vatican believe that, by signing an agreement with the Chinese Communist Party, they will somehow avoid a formal separation of the Church in China from Rome.

The problem with this belief is that the Patriotic Church is already in schism. In fact, it was to create just such a schism that the Communist Party established the Patriotic church in 1958.

Even during the capricious tolerance of 10 or 15 years ago, when it was sometimes possible to build new churches and quietly ordain bishops, there were Patriotic bishops at the highest levels of the state-controlled Patriotic church who had turned their backs on the Magisterium. At no point in time had the schism actually been healed.

Coming back to the proposed agreement, I told the archbishop, “I really think it is a dead letter. The new Red Emperor, who grows more powerful by the day, will not tolerate the kind of ‘foreign interference in internal Chinese matters’ that such an agreement would imply.”

“But if it should happen that China does want to move forward,” the Archbishop said mildly, “then we will be signing an agreement with Xi Jinping himself. So will he not abide by it?”

I quickly recited a litany of agreements that the Chinese government had signed only to violate. These included the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Sino-British Agreement over Hong Kong, and the World Trade Organization covenants. “To answer your question, your Excellency,” I concluded, “I do not think that he or his colleagues will honor such an agreement. These are not honorable men.”

“Chinese Catholics will see the signing of such an agreement as a betrayal,” I told him. “I urge you not to sign an agreement with a viciously atheistic regime that is actively trying to stamp out all religious belief and practice within China, starting with Catholicism.”

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In all, my several meetings on China with various Vatican officials lasted over five hours. I took this as a positive sign of their deep concern for the suffering Church in China.

Did I convince them that the proposed Vatican-China agreement would be—as I believe it to be–a surrender of the Chinese faithful to the Communist Party?

I am not sure.

But I am certain of one thing: They now understand the increasingly harsh political reality faced by our co-religionists in China.

Steven W. Mosher is the President of the Population Research Institute and the author of Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order.

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