Later this year, a deal inked in 2018 between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Vatican will expire. The initial two-year agreement – whose terms remain secret – was already renewed once in 2020. Now after two years of COVID-19, revelations about genocide of the Muslim Uyghurs in western China, the collapse of Hong Kong’s liberties, and mounting concerns over China’s designs on democratic Taiwan, will October be the time to scrap the deal altogether?
Although the text is officially secret, we know the CCP and the Vatican have agreed to cooperate in the selection of bishops (formally appointed by the Pope) of a united Catholic Church in China. As Wang Linbin pointed out in The Diplomat, Beijing now elects and appoints bishops through the Bishops Conference of Catholic Church in China (BCCCC). The objective is a gradual merger of the Underground Catholic Church into the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA).
Both the CPCA and the BCCCC used to exist under the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), until incorporated into the United Front Work Department (UFD) in 2018. Now, Chinese Catholicism is fully under the jurisdiction of the CCP. The Vatican’s approval for this is questionable given that the Holy See retains diplomatic relations with Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China). Vatican City State is in fact one of the few countries which recognises the Republic of China as the official representative of China.
Critics argue that the Vatican has effectively allowed the CCP – which does not recognise division between religion and state, and seeks to “sinicize” faiths within China – to guarantee state control over a religious institution and a potential challenge to Beijing’s authority. The CCP has made no secret of its hostility to religion in general, not least Christianity and Islam, seen as foreign imports rather than indigenous faiths. There has been a history of persecution of Christians in the country – such as during the Boxer Rebellion – while the CCP often connects the Christian faith to Western imperial influence.
Even so, Chinese folk religions, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism have also been suppressed for fear of threatening the CCP’s authority. The persecution of Falun Gong (at one time practised by up to 70 million Chinese people) – with accounts of organ harvesting – has been especially horrific, on top of the persecution of Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims. In all instances, competition over peoples’ loyalty is a huge factor for the CCP. Perhaps little wonder that Beijing has sought control over the Catholic Church, given that China’s estimated 97 million Christians now outnumber members of the Communist Party itself.
It is in this context that criticism of the China-Vatican deal takes place. Back in 2020 when the parties renewed the deal on the appointment of bishops for another two years, the Holy See said both sides intended to pursue “an open and constructive dialogue.” The Vatican stated: “The Holy See considers the initial application of the agreement – which is of great ecclesial and pastoral value – to have been positive, thanks to good communication and cooperation between the parties on the matters agreed upon”.
Still, there is a sense that the Vatican had an opportunity to take a moral stand, unencumbered by economic considerations. After all, the Catholic Church – and its Polish Pope, St. John Paul II – were instrumental in the demise of communism in central and eastern Europe. Numbers are hard to ascertain but there is now credible evidence of persecution of Christians across China, with churches demolished and clerics imprisoned – the most high-profile recently being Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong, on suspicion of “colluding with foreign forces”. His trial is set for September.
Cardinal Zen is not a lone case. Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu of the Xinxiang diocese, arrested in May 2021, is still unaccounted for. Meanwhile Bishop Augustine Cui Tai – formerly Coadjutor Bishop in the Diocese of Xuanhua, in Hebei province – has been in jail on and off since 2007, and has been reportedly subjected to torture. Bishop Cui Tai is a “conscientious objector” who refused to join the CPCA. Although this is permitted by the Vatican, he remains subject to detention. While the Vatican has asked for his release, the Holy See could instead make his release (among others) a precondition for any renewal of the deal with the CCP.
It is estimated that anywhere between 20 and 50 million Chinese Christians have experienced persecution in recent years, with a 2020 report by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China finding that Chinese Catholics suffered “increasing persecution” after the 2018 deal. In China, religious education for any faith is also illegal under the age of 18, meaning catechism classes have been closed while minors are not allowed to enter places of worship. All Catholic churches registered with the authorities are now monitored by CCTV, with priests forced to attend government training.
One wonders how the Vatican can stand by while churches are forced to remove images of the Ten Commandments in favour of sayings by Chairman Mao and current leader, Xi Jinping, with statues replaced by party images, and crucifixes torn down. Moreover, despite international condemnation of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, the Vatican has said little – although Pope Francis has referred to Uyghurs as “persecuted”. Before his arrest Cardinal Zen attributed this to the ongoing CCP-Vatican dialogue, saying: “It seems that in order to save the agreement, the Holy See is closing both eyes on all the injustices that the Communist Party inflicts on the Chinese people.”
The CCP of course has sovereignty over China. But in agreeing to, and updating, the deal with Beijing, the Vatican handed Xi Jinping a win with seemingly little in return. That few Catholics who attended underground churches followed the Patriotic bishops speaks volumes. Indeed, contrary to what Pope Francis may have hoped for, many instead abandoned the Church altogether. Crucially, the model set out in the CCP-Vatican deal has not been replicated in other communist countries, such as Cuba (majority Catholic) or Vietnam (7 per cent Catholic). The deal may have been an attempt at outreach but instead has alienated millions. This October, the Vatican has a chance to send a powerful message, one which will be heard across the Catholic world, from Africa to Latin America. At the very least, it could decide not to renew the deal unless fresh conditions are in place. Will it take the opportunity?
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