February 14, 2018 is a rare occasion when Valentine’s Day, a day of love, falls on the same day as Ash Wednesday. The ashes not only symbolize the dust from which God made us, but also grief that we have sinned and caused division from God.
Ash Wednesday opens Lent, a season of self-examination, repentance, fasting, and prayers that prepare us for Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. On this particular Ash Wednesday, millions of Catholic faithful in mainland China have an extra reason to pray for God’s mercy: their earthly leader, Pope Francis, has betrayed them.
Last week, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis plans to replace two Chinese bishops loyal to Rome with seven excommunicated men chosen by Beijing. Two of those seven men are alleged to have girlfriends and fathered children. Most importantly, all seven men put their loyalty to China’s communist government before their faith in God.
China has long demanded that the Vatican accept only Chinese government-appointed bishops and give them full authority to rule a Chinese diocese. But Francis’s predecessors in the Catholic Church have long believed, as Pope Benedict XVI said, “the authority of the Pope to appoint bishops is given to the church by its founder Jesus Christ. It is not the property of the Pope, neither can the Pope give it to others.”
Yet in Pope Francis the atheist Chinese Communist government found a willing partner eager to give in to their demands. Pope Francis seems to have no problem subordinating his authority to a repressive communist government. Even China’s state-run newspaper Global Times acknowledged that Pope Francis has made “substantial concession.”
China’s Regime Steadfastly Persecutes Christians
Catholics, like other religious groups in China, have long suffered persecution since the Communist takeover in 1949. Under Chairman Mao’s iron fist, China exterminated all religions in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Worship sites were destroyed and religious workers forced to return to secular lives. Many were persecuted, and some even lost their lives.
Since the 1980s, with China’s economic reform, the Chinese government has showed a limited level of tolerance to religions and believers “so long as they were under the control of ‘patriotic’ associations.” Since then, China’s Christian population’s growth has been as impressive as China’s economic growth.
It’s difficult to know how many Christians are in China today because China’s Christian population, especially the Catholics, come from two parallel systems: one is the official, government-sanctioned, registered churches, which don’t recognize the pope’s authority and accept bishops consecrated by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) without the pope’s approval. The other one is the underground church network, which refuses to register with the government and remains loyal to the pope.
Pew Research estimates that, as of 2010, China’s Christian population was around 70 million (including 12 million Catholics), which was about 5 percent of China’s population and 3 percent of the world Christian population. Among the 10 countries with the largest Christian population, China ranks number seven. Based on this kind of growth, many believe China is projected to have 250-300 million Christians by 2030. That means China would have the world’s largest Christian population.
Chinese Leaders Want to Control Religion’s Influence
Such remarkable growth has caused deep concern within the Chinese government. China’s President Xi Jinping is no friend to religious freedom. Since he came into power, he made it clear that religious groups “must adhere to the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and support the socialist system and socialism with Chinese characteristics.” In other words, the Chinese government would tolerate any religion only if it puts the Chinese government before God.
Xi called on Chinese government officials to “step up the guidance, planning, direction and supervision on religious work,” and drew a line in the sand regarding CPCA members. He demanded that they act as “unyielding Marxist atheists, consolidate their faith, and bear in mind the Party’s tenets.”
To show that he meant what he said, Chinese authorities tore down many churches in China in 2015 and arrested lawyers and activists who defended some of the underground churches. As recently as January 2018, Chinese People’s Armed Police used excavators and dynamite to destroy the Golden Lampstand Church in the city of Linfen, Shanxi province.
Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope John Paul II, once wrote that “(The) curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is not only a painful experience but is, above all, an attack on man’s very dignity. … (It is) a radical injustice with regard to what is particularly deep in man, what is authentically human.”
Yet it seems Pope Francis is ready and willing to overlook the Chinese government’s repression to reestablish a diplomatic relationship between the Vatican and China, while demanding little from China’s Communist government in return. Mark Simon, an executive with Next Digital in Hong Kong, wrote that “the Vatican is elevating the persecutors over the persecuted.” Hong Kong’s outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen said Pope Francis had “sold out” China’s millions of Catholic faithful.
Appeasement Only Prompts Further Demands
If Pope Francis naively thinks his substantial concession will be sufficient to please the world’s most powerful atheist regime, he can’t be more wrong. Insisting on appointing its own bishop is only the beginning of Beijing’s series of demands. Catholics in Taiwan should be concerned because mainland China always demands any country who wants to establish diplomatic relationship must sever its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan first.
So far, the Vatican is the only European country that still has a diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. Catholics in Taiwan are rightfully worried that they will be abandoned by a pope who is eager to break the diplomatic ice with mainland China.
It’s clear that Pope Francis is no Pope John Paul II. While Pope John Paul II joined Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan to defeat Communism, Pope Francis is willing to capitulate to oppressive authoritarian regimes like Cuba and China in the name of “openness.” By doing so, he only lends legitimacy and extends a lifeline to those regimes while failing to offer relief to the people oppressed under those regimes. How can a Catholic church under the leadership of Pope Francis still claim it’s the champion of the oppressed?
On this Ash Wednesday, I invite all Christian brothers and sisters, Catholic or not, to join me in praying that God will shine wisdom upon Pope Francis so he won’t capitulate further. We should also pray for God’s mercy and protection of millions of Catholic faithful in China.