The Vatican accused Beijing of breaching its agreement by ordaining a bishop for a Chinese diocese not approved by the Vatican. Beijing’s action surprised few because many people, including the Catholics in China and Hong Kong, had warned Pope Francis not to forge this ill-advised agreement with Beijing in the first place. Yet Francis refused to listen. Will he now have the grace to apologize to Catholics in China?
The Chinese Communist Party severed China’s diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1949, and Catholics in China, like all other religious believers, suffered more than three decades of persecution. The CCP shut down churches and compelled many Christians to undergo “re-education” and thought reform, attempting to convert them from believers into atheist socialists. Those who refused to renounce their faith were charged by the People’s Court as foreign imperialist agents and were sentenced to prison and, in some cases, even death.
In the 1980s, as the CCP launched economic reform to rescue its regime, it began to loosen its persecution of Christians, hoping to attract foreign direct investments in China. Since then, Christianity has experienced unstoppable growth in China. Today, the nation boasts more than 100 million Christians (including 10-12 million Catholics), exceeding the 90 million members of the CCP.
The CCP exerts its control of Christians mainly through the government-backed Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). TSPM promotes loyalty and patriotism to China, and its objective is to “restrict, control and twist Christianity to suit the Communist Party.” For the Catholic branch of TSPM, the organization supports bishops appointed by the CCP and doesn’t recognize the authority of the pope. Most Chinese Christians have rejected the TSPM’s distorted teaching and TSPM-led churches and opted to attend house churches instead. Chinese Catholics who attend house churches continue to pledge allegiance to the pope and the Vatican and do not recognize bishops appointed by the CCP.
Since Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, he has strengthened the CCP’s control and intensified the persecution of Chinese Christians. In 2018 alone, ChinaAid, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization tracking religious persecution in China, reported that more than 10,000 Protestant churches in China were forced to shut down, and thousands of Christians were arrested that year. Yet it was the same year Francis signed a secret agreement with the CCP, despite strong objections from Catholics in China and Hong Kong. During Rome’s negotiation with Beijing, Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen traveled to the Vatican several times. Yet Francis refused to grant Cardinal Zen an audience.
The Vatican has refused to disclose the content of its agreement with the CCP, but some critical terms became evident in the days following. The most significant concession Francis made was to recognize bishops appointed by the CCP and agree to “jointly” select future bishops in China. Such compromise contradicts the church’s teaching as Pope Benedict XVI warned, “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, Francis regards yielding his authority to the CCP as necessary to keep the dialogue with Beijing going. To please the CCP, Francis replaced two Chinese bishops loyal to Rome with seven excommunicated men appointed by Beijing, known for putting their loyalty to the CCP before their faith in God. Two of those seven men allegedly had girlfriends and fathered children. Francis also “encouraged” Chinese Catholic faithful who practice their faith in underground churches to register with the Chinese government. Cardinal Zen called Francis’s action and the secret agreement with the CCP a “sellout” of Chinese Catholics.
It is unclear if the Vatican received anything from the CCP in return. What is evident is that since the 2018 agreement was signed, Xi has continued to persecute Christians and sped up the sinicization of Christians, including “the issuance of a new version of the ‘Christian Clergy License’ nationwide, stipulating that government-approved clergy must meet the political conditions set by the government and must also pass governmental review and certification,” per ChinaAid’s 2021 annual report. Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, said in July this year that “the CCP has all but destroyed the Catholic underground church and tightened conformity with its teachings over the patriotic church” since 2018.
Those of us who know the true nature of the CCP well and have paid close attention to religious freedom in China are not surprised. George N. Patterson, author of “Christianity in Communist China,” warned, “The teachings of Jesus Christ and Mao Zedong could never coexist. It was not simply two opposing ideological systems, two ways of life that were meeting; it was two opposed ‘faiths.’” Francis apparently failed to heed such a warning.
Despite lacking progress, in October this year, the Vatican renewed its agreement with the CCP for another two years. Ironically, the announcement of the renewal came right around the same time when Hong Kong authorities tried the 90-year-old Cardinal Zen for his support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in 2019. Rather than condemning Zen’s arrest, Francis criticized Cardinal Zen for always saying “what he feels.” In an interview, Francis defended his secret deal with the CCP, claiming he “cannot find another way” to carry out diplomacy.
God must have a good sense of humor. Only a month after the Vatican renewed its agreement with the CCP, Rome publicly accused the CCP of breaking the agreement by appointing Bishop John Peng Weizhao “as auxiliary bishop of Jiangxi, a diocese not recognized by the Vatican.” According to The Wall Street Journal, “Bishop Peng had been ordained as a bishop with Vatican approval but as the leader of another jurisdiction, the diocese of Yujiang.” Clearly, the CCP took advantage of the Vatican’s blind faith in Beijing and did what the party always does: making promises with no intention to keep, only to secure concessions from the other side, and never hesitated to break its promises when the timing was right.
Cardinal Zen has too much grace to say “I told you so” to Francis. In the same week, when the Vatican issued its public statement of “surprise and regret” over Beijing’s breach of their agreement, Hong Kong authorities found Cardinal Zen “guilty” of his role as a trustee of a relief fund for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists. Zen was spared imprisonment, but he had to pay a fine of HK$4,000 ($510). The Vatican did not comment on Cardinal Zen’s verdict.
We’re in the Advent season, a “preparatory period of repentance, meditation, and penance,” in anticipation of the birth of Jesus Christ. It is time that Francis reflects that his compromise with the CCP has been a colossal mistake and has failed to promote religious freedom or protect Christians from the CCP’s persecution. As a spiritual leader, Francis should set a good example by apologizing to millions of Chinese Catholics, which will undoubtedly strengthen our faith and bring us comfort this season.