On November 26, Bishop John Fang Xingyao declared, “Love for the homeland must be greater than the love for the Church.” It is not the kind of statement one expects to hear from a bishop of the Catholic – that is to say, the universal – Church.
It recalls the ultra-nationalist heresy propounded by fascists in the last century. In response to this heresy – which elevated loyalty to nation, state and race above the universal law of charity – Pope Pius XI issued Mit brennender Sorge and Non abbiamo bisogno. In these encyclicals, he affirmed the fittingness of patriotism and national loyalty. But he insisted that they must be subordinated to and coordinated by a higher loyalty – to the God who commands us to love all men.
“He who sings hymns of loyalty to this terrestrial country should not, for that reason, become unfaithful to God and His Church, or a deserter and traitor to His heavenly country,” Pius wrote. Anyone who places loyalty to homeland above loyalty to Church has done exactly that.
Bishop Fang is the leader of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the Erastian body that was reconciled to the Holy See last year. He spoke at a conference that sought to build “a religious ideological system with Chinese characteristics in line with the demands of the times”. This endeavour is part of the Chinese regime’s broader nationalist programme of “Sinicisation”, which includes the brutal persecution of Uighur Muslims and ongoing violence against Protestants and Catholics.
Up to this point, Catholic leaders have tended to be silent in the face of China’s crimes. Or they have praised China in ludicrous terms, as did Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo when he called China a model of the common good. Last week, Sánchez Sorondo went further, saying that “the next step is to reach [an agreement on] diplomatic relations”.
Fang’s comments do not in themselves discredit the Vatican’s overtures to Beijing, but they show how the growing relations between the two bodies can cloud the Church’s witness. Avoiding this outcome will require clearer condemnations of Chinese crimes than the Church has yet issued.
In 1929, Pope Pius XI said: “If it were possible to save even a single soul … we would find the courage to deal even with the Devil himself.” This was the aim of the Reichskonkordat, which the Vatican signed with Hitler’s Germany in 1933. It was also the aim of the Vatican’s failed attempts in the 1920s to extend diplomatic recognition to the USSR in return for minimal guarantees of the Church’s liberty.
Neither of these moves was intended as an endorsement of the respective regimes. The narrow aim of each was to ensure that Catholics would continue to receive the sacraments. But these pragmatic arrangements made it all the more urgent for the Church to enunciate its non-negotiable principles. A Vatican memorandum written in 1933 laid out the situation. “The greater the Church’s accommodations at the political level,” it said, “the more important it is to emphasise the immutability of Catholic doctrine.”
This immutable doctrine was totally at odds with Nazi racial theories.
Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, wrote concerning the plight of the Jews: “Days may come in which one will have to be able to say that in this matter something was done. Such a thing is part of the good traditions of the Holy See.”
Something similar is true today concerning the Church and China. The Vatican’s agreement with China was motivated by the same pragmatic concerns as the Reichskonkordat. One hopes that it will be effective in achieving its aims. Either way, it increases the moral obligation of Catholics to speak against the crimes of the regime.
Those crimes are not insubstantial.
More than a million people, most of them Muslim, have been interned in camps in Xinjiang. The Church is obliged to defend them, just as it was obliged to defend Europe’s Jews. The Church has a universal mission of peace and love. It seeks the good of all men, regardless of religion or race.
It has been heartening to see certain Catholics in the West insist that spiritual concerns have priority over temporal ones. Fang and his overlords are attempting to reverse this priority, by subordinating the Church to the state. No Catholic can support this travesty. Some self-styled critics of Western liberalism, including Sánchez Sorondo, have shown sympathy for the Chinese regime. But opposing liberal ideas should not make one less zealous for the rights of the Church or the basic demands of justice. Pragmatic accommodation may be necessary, but it must be accompanied by clear opposition on matters of principle.