The Vatican and China have reached a deal that would be a major step towards normalizing relations between the Catholic Church and the world’s largest formally atheist regime, The Wall Street Journal reports. All that’s needed for the deal to go through is the final nod from Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping. To call this a bombshell would be an understatement.
In this deal, the Catholic Church would recognize eight bishops who have been ordained by the Chinese government without the Vatican’s permission. China’s regime has set up a state-run and state-sponsored “Catholic Church” that competes with the underground Church, recognized by the Vatican. Although in practice the boundaries between these two bodies tend to blur, in reality they are very distinct. After all, Catholicism isn’t Catholicism without obedience to the pope. The move would be a major coup for Pope Francis, who has made no secret of his conciliatory attitude toward China and eagerness to reach some sort of live-and-let-live settlement with China’s still-formally-communist regime. This comes at a time when Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds in China and, under Xi Jinping, the country’s authoritarian government is further cracking down on liberal expression and dissent.
The pope surely thinks of such a deal as a coup. But, if approved, it would be an unmitigated catastrophe. It would not only be morally indefensible, it would also amount to nothing less than a dynamiting of Chinese Catholicism.
Today in China, faithful Catholics still must worship clandestinely. The Chinese government has systematically oppressed Catholics who refuse to kowtow to the Chinese government’s vision of a subservient Catholicism. Faithful and clergy alike are subject to various levels of harassment and imprisonment, and reports of “disappearances” of “unregistered” priests and bishops are still common, according to the U.S. State Department. Chinese Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei spent 30 years in prison for defying the government’s demands regarding his religion. Beda Chang, a Jesuit brother of the pontiff, was tortured to death for refusing to cooperate with the Chinese government.
Does the pope of Rome believe the martyrs of Chinese Catholicism suffered and died for a lie?
Less poignantly, but more significantly, the difference between the actual Roman Catholic Church and the “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association” is not just about appointments, diplomacy, and ecclesiastical power politics. It’s easy to forget when the media are dominated by stories about Chinese business tycoons, but China’s government still officially pledges fealty to the ideology of communism, which Catholicism professes to be opposed to everything Christians are supposed to believe.
The “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association” demands of its adherents the denial of something which sits at the heart of Christianity: supreme allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord, even when it conflicts with allegiance with earthly authorities. This message has been at the heart of Christianity from the start. This is one of the core lessons of Christianity’s founding event, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ: Christians believe there are many reasons Jesus was crucified, but one of them was because he refused to bow down to the political authorities of his day. The texts of the New Testament call on Christians to be good citizens of their homeland and to respect its laws, but also to refuse to obey earthly kings when their demands conflict with those of their divine king. Without this belief, Christianity is ultimately toothless, and therefore meaningless, and this point is the crux of the disagreement between China and the Vatican.
On top of being immoral, though, such a deal would also, for all intents and purposes, destroy Chinese Catholicism.
Christianity is growing like gangbusters in China, for a reason which is plain as day: It provides a stark alternative to the reigning ideology, which everyone knows is bankrupt. The Christian sects that get adherents in China are the ones that don’t sell out to the government, but provide a true alternative to it.
This story has played out in the Church’s history countless times, which is why it’s so baffling to see a pontiff willing to make the same mistake all over again. Historically, the Church has grown when it has been counter-cultural. “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” the ecclesiastical writer Tertullian once said. It was the Catholic martyrs’ impressive witness that drove so many Romans to Christianity, despite the fears of persecution. The Catholic Church in France became moribund once it allowed French kings to appoint bishops and abbots, turning it into a spiritually empty bureaucracy. Even in the 20th century, it was when the Catholic Church refused to kowtow to hostile regimes that it grew and strengthened — and, in many cases, ultimately prevailed — and when it tried to accommodate that it withered.
Which boils down to one issue: How much does the Vatican trust in the promises that, as Catholics, they are required to believe Jesus gave to his Church?
In today’s political context, the physical safety of the pope from martyrdom is more or less assured (although John Paul II famously faced a nearly successful assassination attempt that left him crippled for life), but it was not always so. Reportedly, the famous obelisk that sits at the center of St. Peter’s Square used to sit at the center of the Coliseum where Peter, the fisherman of Galilee, met its own fate. The obelisk is meant to serve as a reminder to the Supreme Pontiff that he too, like all Christians, might be one day asked to give up his life for Jesus, which is why the obelisk is visible from the pope’s office in the Apostolic Palace. Despite the gold and pomp with which he is surrounded, the pope is supposed to give himself up for Christ with the same abandon as St. Peter did. But it is also supposed to be a reminder that the Church is meant to prevail against all her earthly enemies, as it prevailed against Rome, then the mightiest empire the world had ever seen.
How would a pope who not only believed in that promise, but viewed it as a self-evident fact of life, behave towards China?
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.