Holy unseen: the Pope’s surrender to China

The Vatican’s new pact with the Communists seems to have bought the pontiff’s silence at the expense of millions of betrayed Catholics

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Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, leaves after testifying as a defence witness at the West Kowloon Magistrates Court in Hong Kong on December 5, 2018, in the case of three leading democracy campaigners who are facing trial over their involvement in the 2014 Occupy rallies. (© ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)

In August, I was at a private gathering of Catholic parliamentarians in Fatima, the pilgrimage site in Portugal. Among our guests were Martin Lee, the grandfather of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, veteran politician and founder of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong; and Hong Kong’s courageous Cardinal Joseph Zen (pictured, right), who has been disgracefully sidelined by the Vatican because of his critical views of the mainland regime.

The Chinese authorities regarded our two octogenarian guests as such a threat that they despatched a delegation from their Lisbon embassy to obstruct our trip. They hired an entire floor of the hotel opposite, made systematic attempts to infiltrate our venue, and tried repeatedly to pressure the organisers to withdraw the invitation to the Hong Kong visitors. 

Our small group, with the protection of the Portuguese police, stood its ground and the meeting went ahead.  The Chinese delegation had the opportunity to experience the blessings of Fatima. But our difficulties are a mild microcosm of the pressure the Chinese Communist Party is bringing to bear on the church in China—and on the Vatican itself.

In his Urbi et Orbi Christmas message, Pope Francis offered prayers for Syria and the Middle East, Venezuela, all of Africa and Ukraine, calling for peace, security and an end to suffering. Conspicuous by their absence were two of the world’s most serious human rights crises: the crackdown in Hong Kong and the plight of the Uyghurs, who face a cultural if not a literal genocide in China’s Xinjiang region. Not to mention the wider assault on religion there.

Why? A deal signed by the Vatican with the Chinese Communist Party regime on September 22, 2018 has apparently bought the Pope’s silence. 

The pact was a long time in the making. It was born of a well-intentioned but naïve desire on the part of the Vatican, including some officials preceding Francis’ pontificate (but not the two previous popes), to “normalise” the status of the Catholic Church in China and thus ensure better protection for religious freedom.

Until the agreement, the official state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association was out of communion with Rome (although some individual bishops and clergy were recognised by both Rome and Beijing), while Catholics who refused to join the regime’s church and worshipped in underground churches remained loyal to Rome. These “underground Catholics” faced the risk of harassment, arrest, imprisonment and torture.

The desire to improve this is not in itself wrong. Nor is Pope Francis’s love of China as a nation and a people. As a Jesuit, he is inspired by the example of Matteo Ricci, the first European to set foot in the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1601. Ricci converted several Chinese officials to Catholicism and established the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, the city’s oldest church. He learned Chinese, dressed in Chinese robes and defended Chinese traditions and Confucian values.

Francis has often spoken of his desire to be the first Pope to visit China, following in his fellow Jesuit’s footsteps. But Ricci’s accommodation of Chinese culture is not the same as the current Vatican’s appeasement of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Vatican-China deal is problematic in four respects: secrecy, substance, timing and impact. More than a year after the deal was announced, the text remains unpublished. It appears to include an agreement on the nomination of bishops. From now on, the Chinese Communist Party regime, an officially atheist outfit, will nominate candidates. Theoretically, the Pope has the final say. But given Rome’s recent reluctance to stand up to Beijing, would Francis actually veto a nominee?

At least seven previously excommunicated bishops, appointed by the regime, are now back in communion with Rome. At least two underground bishops, loyal to Rome, have been asked by the Vatican to step aside from their positions in favour of the regime’s bishops. In December 2018, Monsignor Vincent Guo Xijin, underground bishop of Mindong, was replaced by Monsignor Vincenzo Zhan Silu, one of the previously excommunicated bishops. Last month Bishop Guo, who has been arrested several times in the past two years, disappeared, believed to be on the run from the authorities. The underground bishop of Shantou, Monsignor Pietro Zhuang Jianjian, was also asked to make way for state-approved bishop Giuseppe Huang Bingzhang. Even if rapprochement with Beijing is desirable, sacrificing those who have risked and suffered so much for so long for the Church is not just a tragedy, but a scandal.

It should have been a precondition for any agreement that Catholic bishops, priests and laity in prison should be released. Yet, to the knowledge of those who campaign for religious freedom in China, no such attempt was made. Over a year later an unknown number remains in jail.

The whereabouts and well-being of one of the most prominent among these, Bishop James Su Zhimin of Baoding, who has spent almost 24 years in prison, is unknown. Just two months after the deal was announced, another bishop, Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou, was arrested for the fifth time in two years. He was released later that month, but continues to face harassment. Father Zhang Guilin and Father Wang Zhong of Chongli-Xiwanzi diocese were detained in late 2018 and their whereabouts are unknown. Any hope that “normalisation” of the Church’s status would lead to more protection for Catholics has been dashed. If anything, it has led to greater repression.

If such a deal had been reached a decade ago, amid some greater religious and civic freedoms, it might have been more understandable. But this agreement has been announced at a time when Xi Jinping’s regime has unleashed the most severe crackdown since the Cultural Revolution.

Just before New Year, one of China’s most prominent Protestant pastors, Wang Yi, who led the Early Rain Church in Chengdu, Sichuan, was sentenced to nine years in jail for “inciting to subvert state power”. All he did was preach a sermon saying that Xi Jinping is not God.

The United States Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, said last summer that the Chinese regime “is at war with faith”, although “it is a war they will not win”. Across China, thousands of churches have been closed or destroyed in the past four years. Tens of thousands of religious symbols, including crosses and statues, have been torn down.

Revised regulations on religion issued in 2018, shortly before the Vatican deal, were followed by a renewed crackdown, including restrictions on sharing religious materials online and a ban on under-18s worshipping. Facial recognition surveillance cameras have been mounted at the altars of many churches, and churches have been required to display portraits of Xi Jinping and Communist Party propaganda banners in place of or alongside religious images, and to sing patriotic and Communist songs alongside or instead of Christian hymns.

In November last year Bishop John Fang Xingyao, President of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, told a Communist Party-sponsored event that “love for the homeland must be greater than love for the Church and the law of the country is above canon law”.

Even the Bible (along with the Koran) faces a rewrite at the regime’s hands. Wang Yang, Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which oversees ethnic and religious affairs, called at a meeting in November for “a comprehensive evaluation of the existing religious classics, aiming at contents which do not conform to the progress of the times”. These books should be rewritten to “reflect socialist values”, he said.

Christians are not alone in being persecuted. The world media has exposed the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang where at least one million Uyghur Muslims, perhaps as many as three million, are held in prison camps, subjected to slave labour and torture. Mosques have been destroyed, believers forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, and beards and headscarves banned. China’s state media have publicly declared that the goal in regard to the Uyghurs is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins”. Other religious groups face persecution as well, particularly the Buddha-school spiritual movement Falun Gong. Tibet is scarred by the demolition of Buddhist monasteries, the forced eviction of monks and nuns and ever-tightening repression.

In June, a high-level independent tribunal, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, found after six months of hearings that it was beyond reasonable doubt that the Chinese state has been forcibly extracting human organs from prisoners of conscience for the transplant industry. The seven-member panel, consisting of lawyers, a senior surgeon, a businessman and an academic, concluded that this amounts to a crime against humanity and that anyone engaging with the Chinese state should do so knowing that they are “interacting with a criminal state”.

Yet this is the criminal state with which the Vatican has done a deal. The chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, describes the Chinese regime as the “best implementer of Catholic social doctrine”. This is the same Bishop Sorondo who in 2017 hosted a conference on organ harvesting and invited, as the only speaker on China, the former deputy health minister, Huang Jiefu—one of those blamed for the practice. The Vatican resisted appeals to invite expert researchers on the subject to present their evidence. (The Pope, to his credit, pulled out of an audience with the delegates, thus denying the Chinese officials their much-desired photo opportunity.) 

I became a Catholic on Palm Sunday 2013, in Burma, inspired and received into the Church by Burma’s courageous Cardinal Charles Bo, now President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. Unlike the Holy See, Cardinal Bo has not been afraid to speak out, signing recently, together with 43 other public figures from 18 countries including parliamentarians, an Open Letter to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam—a fellow Catholic—urging her to stop police brutality and hold a genuine independent inquiry into police action in the city. I wish the Pope himself, who is not shy of speaking up for the oppressed, would do so too, even if only to say that he is praying for Hong Kongers, Uyghurs and Chinese Christians. Instead, he stays silent.

One small step the Vatican could take would be to appoint the brave Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, who has stood by Hong Kong’s protesters and been such an inspiring voice of conscience, to the vacant position of Bishop of the city. 

One has to wonder what the courageous Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, who was made a cardinal by Pope St John Paul II in pectore (in secret) and who died in 2000, would have made of this. He spent 30 years in Chinese prisons because of his refusal to accept the Communist Party’s control of the Church.

It is not too outrageous to compare the Francis-Xi Jinping Pact with the Reichskonkordat negotiated between the Vatican and Nazi Germany. The Nazis saw the deal as a way of restricting the Church’s influence. By contrast, in Poland the Church’s staunch anti-Nazi stance led to the death camps, but also shaped the young Karol Wojtyla, who became St John Paul II: the man who led the fight against Communist tyranny. What would he have to say to Francis?  We pray that someone in the Vatican will wake up and hear that great saint’s voice soon. If we do not stand by our Chinese brothers and sisters, we will find ourselves, and the Church, on the wrong side of history. As my experience in Portugal shows, we will find our own freedoms threatened too.