Don’t look to China for an example of Catholic social teaching

President Xi Jinping (AP)

Bishop Marcelo Sorondo is Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, so we should sit up and take notice when he says: “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese”.

It has to be said that this is a puzzling remark. It is especially puzzling in that he argued that one of the attractions of the Chinese approach is that the economy does not dominate politics – unlike in the US. But, the Bishop himself elevates economic matters over other aspects of the social and political order which are surely far more important.

Catholic social teaching demands freedom of conscience, freedom of association and the protection of life from conception until natural death. These are not optional extras and nor are they part of the moral teaching of the Church outside its social teaching. These aspects of the Church’s social teaching are fundamental because they have an impact on education, healthcare and the whole structure of political and civil society as well as on economic and social relationships.

It has to be said that China does not score very well in these areas. Aid to the Church in Need’s report on persecution in China begins: “New regulations led to more churches destroyed and crosses pulled down. Threat of more restrictive legislation. Surveillance has grown. House Churches under increased pressure to conform or disband.” The level of persecution is described as “extreme” and the situation “worsening”. If the political structures are not facilitating freedom of conscience and freedom of worship, still less freedom in education choices for parents, the government has turned its back totally on Catholic social teaching.

Indeed, there is no sense in which a civil society culture in China is nourished. Furthermore, what Pope John Paul II described as the “culture of death” is more obvious than signs of religious values informing political decision making. Although the one-child policy has been relaxed, there are still limits on the number of pregnancies and significant state intervention in the whole process of childbearing. The consequences of the previous one-child policy, with the mass murder of babies in the womb simply because they were female, will be felt for decades to come as the population ages.

The fact is that the government in China requires allegiance to the state rather than creating the conditions in which all can reach fulfilment (including in their relationship with God) as the Church demands. When it comes to Catholic social teaching, it fails at first base.

Ironically, given Sorondo’s remarks, it is in the matter of the economy that the government has done better. China has moved from being a country where millions starved and millions more were malnourished to a more liberal economy in which prosperity for most is possible. As normally happens when countries become more prosperous, environmental indicators have also now begun to improve. There is more to the story than this and the state is always in the background, if not the foreground of economic life, but these developments since 1978 are to be welcomed. It is, indeed, the liberalism which Sorondo decries that has led both to the economic and to the environmental improvements. Bishop Sorondo commented: “What people don’t realise is that the central value in China is work, work, work. There’s no other way, fundamentally it is like St Paul said: he who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat.” Fair enough, but it is the liberalisation of the economy that has allowed those who work to eat more.

As we have noted, the Bishop would like the economy not to dominate politics. Certainly, we should beware of vested interests using the political system for their own benefit. But it is also not for the political system to dominate economics, still less to be intertwined with it. Unfortunately, this is the way of most South American countries (Sorondo is Argentinian) and of China. It is not surprising given this background that China languishes in indices of transparency and corruption roughly in the same position as South American countries and in an altogether worse position than the US. If China were a football team, it would be in the bottom half of the bottom division of the anti-corruption league: the US would be in the premiership.

The problem with Bishop Sorondo is that he seems to have a rather reductionist view of Catholic social teaching. It all boils down to climate change and Sorondo is praising China’s actions in that respect. However, another principle of Catholic social teaching is that actions speak louder than words (though words are important too). Sorondo berates the US for not signing up to climate treaties. Maybe so, but whilst China has increased carbon emissions they have been reduced by 20 per cent per capita in the US between 2005 and 2017, though it should be said that emissions may well be falling in China at the current time.

Sorondo seems influenced by what China says it will do in relation to one policy area. This does not surprise me. When I spoke at a conference with him in December 2015, he would brook no opposition to his strong support for and collaboration with Jeffrey Sachs and seemed to be unwilling to engage in any intellectual debate about issues to do with the environment.

It is a pity to have to say this, but whatever strand of Catholic social teaching the Chinese government is modelled on, it would not have been recognisable to St Thomas Aquinas, Leo XIII or John Paul II. Indeed, given the emphasis that Pope Francis puts on life issues and on corruption in government, I am not sure it would be recognisable to his boss.