The Vatican is seeking cordial relations with China when it should be standing up for persecuted Catholics

Chinese Catholics receive Communion in 2012 during Christmas Eve Mass in Beijing (CNS)

Do I believe in the separation of Church and State? Yes, I do, I have to say – though not in the way that some interpret the terms.

The concept of a national Church strikes me as absurd. When the Church was founded, by Our Blessed Lord, circa 30 AD, the nation state did not exist as we know it. Jesus told his disciples to go and teach all nations, which is a pretty good indication that the Church transcends national boundaries. In addition, we need to remember that the Church has endured for 2,000 years and will do so, we believe, to the end of time. It has already outlived many a regime. To become attached to once particular nation, regime, or state, is to link itself to a transient reality – never a good idea for a Church that claims to be founded on the eternal verities.

For these reasons, one shivers as one reads the latest report from China in The Daily Telegraph, the headline of which is distressing to every Catholic. As a priest from the ‘underground’ or non-recognised Catholic Church is quoted saying: “Rome may betray us, but I won’t join a Church which is controlled by the Communist Party.” The whole article deserves careful reading.

We all know that the Communist regime in China wants to control every aspect of life, which includes religion. Hence the monstrous invention of the “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association”, a state Church, where the bishops are appointed by the atheist government in Beijing, and who are chosen, we can be sure, as safe pairs of hands, men who will not rock the boat. (Although, it has to be said that the situation has been further complicated by the fact that many of these state-appointed bishops have been secretly reconciled with Rome, or so it is claimed.) To work for a bishop appointed by an atheist government would be anathema to any good priest, and to accept the ministrations of such a bishop would be repugnant to any faithful Catholic layperson too.

The excellent Cardinal Zen as usual gets to the heart of the matter: “It is unthinkable to leave the initial proposal [for a Vacant See] in the hands of an atheist government who cannot possibly judge the suitability of a candidate to be a bishop.”

If Vatican diplomacy is contemplating some sort of compromise with the Chinese government whereby they propose bishops which the Vatican then approves, this would be a huge defeat for the autonomy of the Church and for religious liberty, quite apart from throwing the faithful Catholics of China under the bus.

And what would the purpose of this compromise be? Does the Vatican seriously believe that the Communist party is suddenly going to stop persecuting Christians? Does a leopard change its spots? Is the regime in Beijing to be trusted? Moreover, is the regime in Beijing, in its present form, going to last?

If Vatican diplomacy is hoping for a rapprochement with China, it needs to be extremely cautious. In gaining diplomatic relations, which may be purely cosmetic, it may sacrifice a great deal, including its own moral credibility.