Ethics & Public Policy Center

An Even Worse Vatican Deal with China

Published in National Review Online on March 24, 2018


Of all the disturbing and even silly things that have been said in defense of the deal between the Vatican and China reportedly being negotiated, the most offensive is that critics of this proposed arrangement to regularize Catholic life in the PRC don’t understand that the Cold War is over and the world is in a new situation.

This is preposterous. Of course we critics know the Cold War of 1945–1991 is over — and we remember that those alleging we don’t know that weren’t much help in winning it. We also know that, whatever else may change in world politics, the character of totalitarian governments doesn’t, and we know that it’s a fool’s errand to pretend that a Communist regime will honor any pledges it makes. Moreover, we know what the critics’ critics refuse to acknowledge, and indeed deny despite overwhelming evidence: namely, that the last Vatican effort to make deals with Communist states, the so-called Ostpolitik of the late 1960s and 1970s, was a colossal failure. Most of all, we critics fear that deal-making with the current regime in China will weaken the evangelical mission of the Catholic Church by identifying a kowtowing Vatican with a Communist government that systematically and brutally violates the human rights of its people.

Since this controversy broke out into public view several months ago, numerous facts that ought to give Vatican officials pause, but seem not to, have come to light:

• China has doubled down on the cult of personality and essentially unchecked power of Communist Party leader and president Xi Jinping, who is now de facto ruler-for-life.

• China has adopted new and more restrictive regulations on religious communities and institutions.

• A prominent defender of religious freedom in China, Li Baiguang, was kidnapped, and later died under circumstances that make it reasonable to think he was murdered by the regime.

• Crosses continue to be removed from churches all over China, with some 1,200 having been removed in one region alone in recent years.

• Minors have been banned from entering churches in some regions, and priests have been told to erect signs on churches saying that entry by minors is forbidden.

• Attention has been drawn to the vast increase in organ transplants in China since 2015, which strongly suggests that, despite China’s formal adherence to international protocols on organ donation, organs are still being taken in large numbers from political prisoners who are executed precisely in order to harvest their organs.

• Chinese-regime propaganda organs such as the Global Times have praised Vatican-based Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo — who notoriously declared after a recent visit to the country that China was living the social doctrine of the Catholic Church better than any other nation — for his sagacity.

• Several of the illegally ordained bishops whom the Vatican has indicated a willingness to accept (in place of properly ordained bishops who do not enjoy regime approval) seem to have wives or significant others, and at least one is reported to have fathered children in clear defiance of Latin-rite Catholicism’s commitment to a celibate clergy.

• And most ominously for the pact being negotiated with the Vatican, Xi Jinping announced this week that the government Religious Affairs Bureau was being closed and that full responsibility for supervising religious organizations was being transferred to the Communist Party — of which Xi said, in 2016, all members ought to be “firm Marxist atheists and never find any of their beliefs in any religion.”

As I’ve pointed out before, a deal with China that would give the government the right to nominate bishops — nominations that the Vatican could either accept or decline — is a violation of the Church’s own canon law, for Canon 377.5 clearly and unambiguously states that “no rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation of bishops are granted to civil authorities.” Now in theory, Pope Francis, as the supreme legislator of the Church, could suspend the application of that law in the case of China. But why in heaven’s name (literally) would the Catholic Church accept a deal in which the Communist Party nominated Catholic bishops — for that is what the recent transfer of control over religious organizations from the state to the party would mean. Are those in charge of Vatican diplomacy these days so naïve, so obsessed with closing a deal with the PRC, or so blind to the realities of totalitarian power that they can’t see that party-nominated candidates for the episcopate would be party tools? Can’t they grasp the elementary fact that, even if the Vatican dug in its heels and rejected this, that, or the other nominee, the regime would then charge the Holy See with reneging on the deal, thereby increasing the pressure to accept party stooges as bishops?

It’s said that one driver of this misconceived and evangelically dangerous negotiation is Vatican concern over the growth of Protestantism in China. Doesn’t it occur to anyone in authority in Rome that the Protestant churches that are growing in the PRC are the persecuted house churches? Isn’t it likely that one of the reasons why Catholicism is lagging behind Protestantism in China is precisely the counter-witness given by the regime-approved Catholic Patriotic Association? As for a papal visit to China as one sweetener for closing a deal, how can anyone imagine that such a trip would be anything other than a regime-manipulated affair that, over the long haul, would do further damage to the Church’s reputation and its capacity for mission?

With the transfer of authority over religion in China to the Communist Party, Xi Jinping has made it unmistakably clear that what he wants out of any deal with the Vatican is control. He is not interested in “dialogue,” and since the last party congress, talk from Vatican diplomats about China’s increasing openness to the world looks more and more like a walk through the looking glass. Thus the best Easter present the Vatican could give the suffering underground Church of China is a bold, public reaffirmation of its witness — and a clear, public statement that the transfer of supervision over religious bodies in China from the state to the Communist Party is a terminal deal breaker.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center

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