In Beijing on Saturday, the Holy See signed an historic and consequential agreement with the People’s Republic of China. The Vatican issued a press release stating that Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, undersecretary for the Holy See’s Relations with States, and Wang Chao, deputy minister for foreign affairs of the People’s Republic of China, signed a “provisional agreement” on the appointment of bishops.
It concludes: “The shared hope is that this agreement may favour a fruitful and forward-looking process of institutional dialogue and may contribute positively to the life of the Catholic Church in China, to the common good of the Chinese people and to peace in the world.”
The announcement reveals no specific details other than it grants China the power to appoint bishops, and is “provisional,” subject to “periodic reviews.” What are the arrangements to be reviewed? How often will audits be conducted? Have deadlines been set for the reassessments? Matters are left unspecified. All that is clear is that the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will work, behind closed doors, to select all future bishops in every Chinese diocese.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Pope Francis’ secretary of state, went on air to intone that “today, for the first time, all the bishops in China are in communion with the bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter.” It would be more accurate to state that, for the first time, the Holy See is in communion with the CCP.
Left unsaid is what has been known for some time: that agreement with Beijing allows the regime virtually full control over bishop selections. The Vatican’s right of veto is a fig leaf over the fact that the CCP retains the option of ignoring a veto if it chooses.
The accord bears certain resemblance to the 1933 Reichskonkordat between the Vatican and the Third Reich. At the time, the church hoped to safeguard its own interests; the Reich sought to foreclose church influence on German politics by restricting clergy to strictly religious acts. Today’s Sino-Vatican agreement, judged by the nature and extent of President Xi Jinping’s program of Sinofication, does the same. As the Reichskonkordat was criticized for lending legitimacy to the Nazi regime, the same complaint can be directed at this bow to the CCP.
‘Saying Nothing in Many Words’
Vatican watcher Sandro Magister responded to the news by stating that this agreement can rightly be called historic “because it marks a sensational about-face in the journey that the Catholic Church has made over centuries of history to free itself from submission to political powers, particularly in the ‘investiture’ of its pastors.”
Magister adds that, with the signing, Pope Francis has lifted the ban of excommunication against eight bishops (seven living, one deceased) the regime already installed without the required papal mandate. In short, previously illicit ordinations have been legitimized. (It is unclear whether Paul Dong Guanhu, who ordained himself bishop in 2016 and promised to ordain others, is among those newly declared lawful.)
Cardinal Joseph Zen, former archbishop of Hong Kong, denounced the long-expected announcement as “a masterpiece of creativity in saying nothing in many words. . . . The important thing is that if nobody asks to change or cancel the agreement, this, even if provisional, remains in place. The word ‘provisional’ says nothing.”
Meanwhile, China Amps Up Religious Repression
The regime is on guard against any threat to its monopoly on power. This concordat comes within—and despite—hardening positions on religious expression. This past May brought an increase in anti-Christian repression. One recent innovation is the establishment of loyalty records on each citizen. This entails monitoring their choice of reading and their social media communications. In relation to internet use alone, Aaron Rhodes reported:
All organizations engaged in the dissemination of religious information online will be obliged to apply for licenses from provincial religious affairs departments, the paper [a party news agency] said, citing a policy document issued on Monday.
While the license will enable them to ‘preach and offer religious training,’ they will not be allowed to live-stream or broadcast religious activities. The dissemination of religious information anywhere other than their own internet platforms is also forbidden, a likely attempt to curb religious material spreading on social media networks.
In short, religious proselytizing joins pornography, gambling, rumor-mongering, and other purveyors of “improper values” as an illegal online activity. As of the signing, the regime had terminated more than 4,000 websites and online accounts during a three-month campaign against “harmful” online information, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Massimo Introvigne, an authority on religion and human rights in China, writes in the supremely informative “Bitter Winter”:
The Vatican, after its experience in countries such as Poland or Lithuania, also believes that these agreements offer to it a latitude to operate openly within Communist societies, and subtly influence their transformation from inside. Whether this is a realistic perspective or a dangerous illusion, time will tell. But this is the very reason while sectors of the CCP oppose the agreement and, rather than a global, final, and public treaty with the Vatican, so far what we have is a partial, provisional, and secret one.
Reference to Lithuania and Poland is disconcerting. Yes, the Catholic Church played a role in the eventual independence of Lithuania and Poland, both Catholic countries, from Soviet control. But that rode a wave of civil resistance. It was carried on historical currents that coursed in the opposite direction from those today in China. Has the Vatican forgotten Tiananmen Square? The revolutions of 1989 ended very differently in China than in Eastern and Central Europe.
Lithuania and Poland each achieved national sovereignty during the reign of Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union from 1988-91. The Soviet economy had been weakening. Perestroika (the cessation of central planning) went into effect; glasnost (transparency; an end to secrecy) was the watchword.
Gorbachev’s strategic restructurings created upheavals that fueled the Eastern bloc’s surge in resistance to one-party rule. The symbiosis between Catholic Church and trade unions in Poland has no parallel in China. Neither does there exist a majority-Catholic population as in Lithuania, the most Catholic of all the soviets.
China is advancing, not weakening. And Xi is vigilant against the relinquishing of control that led to the Soviet Union’s dissolution under Gorbachev. He is tightening, not ceding, control. No rising democratic spirit is on the horizon. Nor is one likely to appear under the regime’s inversion of Western concepts of human rights.
How Chasing a Legacy May Undermine It
The Western ideal is founded on the principle of natural rights. But as Aaron Rhodes reminds the West: “Official Chinese human rights principles state that human rights are rights given by society to the individual.” They come not from God, but from the state. Accordingly: “China has incarcerated the highest number of believers of all denominations in the world. Experts say the number of people being detained for their religious beliefs and observances is the highest since the Cultural Revolution.”
It is worth noting that on the day the accord with China was signed, Pope Francis landed in Lithuania. His trip marks the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s apostolic visit in September, 1993. A man as fastidiously mindful as Francis of his own image, and of the symbolic value of papal junkets, invites interpretation of his public acts.
This one to the Balkans suggests that papal ardor for rapprochement with a militantly atheistic Chinese regime is motivated by something different from the stereotypical pieties. Call it competition for a legacy. Running counter to history and to facts on the ground is Francis’ ambition to equal, if not surpass, John Paul in the history books. It remains to be seen how that ambition will be served by confusing the revolutions of 1989 with the 1930s.