Media outlets have been reporting that the Vatican is finalizing a plan to recognize seven “Catholic” bishops appointed illicitly by the Chinese government—an authoritarian Communist regime that openly oppresses the faithful and tramples on the freedom of religion. If this capitulation comes to pass, the Vatican's decision would violate the Catholic Church’s own political philosophy and natural rights philosophy.
A source told an Italian newspaper in late February that a deal on the seven bishops, and possibly on future appointments as well, could be in place as early as March. The Vatican has declined to comment officially on the possible decision, but a source is reporting that Pope Francis is planning to lift the excommunications of several of the bishops who received this ecclesiastical punishment as a result of their illicit ordinations, and recognize the seven as official bishops. The Holy See is reportedly hoping that, in exchange, the Communist government will finally recognize the pope as head of the Church and provide him with some type of veto power over the selection of future “bishops” selected by the government. Multiple dispatches and sources are reporting different specific possibilities on what the Vatican may request, meaning that the terms of a potential deal are probably fluid and are still being debated.
Whatever form a deal may ultimately take, a decision to surrender to the Chinese communist government would have numerous deleterious effects. A deal would compromise the independence of the Church in the modern world. The ramifications of a deal would affect the Church and the faithful for generations to come, raising serious questions about the validity of episcopal ordinations and claims to rightful apostolic succession.
Persecution by the Communists
In order to understand the magnitude of what is at stake, one must understand the state of religious oppression in China.
Open Doors, an advocacy organization for oppressed Christians, placed China on its 2018 World Watch List, a grouping that measures the top fifty countries in which persecution against Christians is the most severe. A 2015-2017 report from Aid to the Church in Need labeled the level of Christian persecution in China as “Extreme” and asserted that the level of Christian persecution is “Worsening.”
The 2017 Annual Report by the United States Congressional-Executive Commission on China reported “widespread and systematic violation of the principles of religious freedom as Chinese authorities exercised broad discretion over the religious practice of Chinese citizens.” According to a comprehensive Freedom House report released last year, religious control has intensified since 2012, when President Xi Jinping assumed power. As the report details: “Security forces across the country detain, torture, or kill believers from various faiths on a daily basis.” In addition: “Extensive surveillance, ‘reeducation’ campaigns, and restrictions on private worship affect the spiritual lives of millions of people.”
Just last year, the bishop of Mindong was imprisoned and sentenced to a reeducation camp. Priests of the underground church have been arrested, beaten, and physically tortured in attempts to coerce them into joining the Communist-approved “Catholic” Church. Priests have been sentenced to forced labor camps, and both priests and bishops have disappeared after being arrested. One arrested underground bishop has been missing for over twenty years.
At the end of 2017, it was reported by local Chinese government officials that Christian families in an eastern provincial town had allegedly volunteered to remove over 600 religious images in their homes and replace them with over 400 portraits of President Xi. Government officials alleged that they were “converting” people successfully to government loyalty, although one priest claimed that the residents were bribed. Officials are reported to have said that the Christians involved “recognized their mistakes and decided not to entrust to Jesus but to the Party.”
As recently as February 1, harsher religious restrictions went into effect that, among other things, make non-state-controlled religious gatherings of young people illegal. Dispatches report that clergymen have been told to alert young people that they are no longer allowed on religious premises.
In December, a Catholic church in Zhifang, which had been used for worship since 1999, was demolished by the Chinese government for no apparent reason. Worshippers were not permitted to save any sacred artifacts from the church. A campaign in Zhejiang Province to remove crosses from all Catholic and Protestant churches has netted the destruction of thousands of these Christian symbols. Some worshippers resisted, like those of the Salvation Church, who encircled the church in the midst of hundreds of riot police. The result of this quest to save a cross from government destruction was fifty civilian injuries.
The cultish propaganda surrounding President Xi has intensified—at levels some report are the highest since the days of Mao Zedong—following a Communist Party amendment to its charter last year. The amendment gave President Xi power unmatched since Mao and bestowed on him official recognition mirroring the national reverence accorded to Mao.
In 2016, Xi said, “We must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means,” and that “in no way should religions interfere with government administration, judiciary and education.”
According to Church teaching, a government interfering with the natural rights of free religious expression is committing serious error:
All the more is it a violation of the will of God and of the sacred rights of the person and the family of nations when force is brought to bear in any way in order to destroy or repress religion, either in the whole of mankind or in a particular country or in a definite community.
Millions of Chinese sacrifice daily for the freedom to worship the Trinity as their God in communion with Rome. Rather than appeasing and capitulating to the Chinese government, the Vatican would do well to admonish it instead. For, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares, “The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with ‘communism’ or ‘socialism.’” Indeed, the Chinese’s government’s proper role, according to Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae, “is to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens, in an effective manner, by just laws and by other appropriate means.”
The Underground Catholic Church in China
The ruling Communist Party has attempted to exert complete control of Catholicism in China, prohibiting the free exercise of true Catholicism. The government interference has led to a hidden underground Catholic Church in communion with Rome whose members sacrifice considerably to worship outside government control. Estimates of the Chinese Catholic population range from 9 million to 10.5 million and up to 12 million, with half or more estimated to be in the underground church.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former Hong Kong bishop and an outspoken advocate for the oppressed Catholics of China, wrote in late January that signing the accord would mean “that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China.” In February, Cardinal Zen characterized a potential deal on the bishops by Vatican negotiators as “a surrender.” (He also claimed that Pope Francis is not aware of the reality of what is happening in China and is being led and counseled by a negotiating delegation that overzealously desires a deal.)
The potential deal would disregard those of the Catholic underground who have sacrificed and defied the government in order to remain faithful to Rome, signaling to those Catholics that for naught have they remained faithful to the Church. Further, if a deal is made, as Cardinal Zen wrote, “Priests and believers will soon have to obey and respect those who are today illicit.”
Two of the dioceses, those of Shantou and Mindong, are said to have larger underground Catholic communities than open communities. Both of the underground communities are led by their own bishops. The Vatican is said to have asked both of these underground bishops in December to resign and to recognize officially the two government-chosen bishops, one of whom was excommunicated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011.
In his first interview since the headlines broke, one of those prelates, Bishop Guo Xijin of Mindong, who has spent time in prison and is currently under police surveillance, said that he will ultimately “obey Rome’s decision,” so as not to sever ties with the Vatican. Bishop Guo, however, does not foresee a deal making the Communist government change its hostile position toward free Catholic worship.
Indeed, in President Xi’s own words, he desires to “guide religions to adapt to the socialist society.” To argue that the Communist Party, especially under President Xi, will ever adapt to Catholic authority from Rome dismisses current knowledge of the situation in China, of history, and of the political thought of Marxism and communism. One must consider the words of Cardinal Zen: “A church enslaved by the government is no real Catholic Church.”
Communism Is Not Compatible with Catholicism
The appeasement of a totalitarian, autocratic, and authoritarian regime is a mistake that often results in dreadful consequences. Appeasement most especially will not work for the Church. To the Communist Party, the Catholic Church is a formidable foreign enemy with internal agents who are a threat to its power and control. History’s totalitarian regimes have all feared organized religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular.
Further, appeasement to a communist country ignores Catholic teaching that is staunchly against communism. If the plan is adopted officially by the Chair of Saint Peter, the Vatican will be bowing to the demands of an oppressive regime that acts in opposition to a corpus of Catholic teaching on the inherent dignity and rights of persons, as well as on the responsibilities and limits of civil government. For the Catechism teaches: “No one can command or establish what is contrary to the dignity of persons and the natural law.”
The Church also teaches: “Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it.” The Chinese government, however, infringes on the people’s natural rights, which for the Church includes the right to free religious expression. In China, Catholics are allowed to worship legally only under the guidance and the regulations of the state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which the Vatican does not, as of now, consider to be genuinely Catholic.
The possible decision by the Vatican cannot be considered “dialogue.” Rather the possible deal must be characterized as a compromising appeasement to a hostile foreign power. Authoritarian communist states do not believe in honest dialogue; all others are but means to be used in order to bring them to their end, the means to which entails doing whatever is necessary to dominate and to subdue the faithful in order to maintain power.
The potential appeasement would delegitimize the Church’s own authority in decision-making within her own institution and give credence to the authority of an oppressive, atheistic, and authoritarian communist regime to choose prelates for the Catholic Church. The move would not only set a precedent in China, but also potentially seduce other oppressive governments to test the authority of the Church and meddle in its affairs, while also emboldening other governments to inhibit free Catholic worship.
The Church has no political party and claims no political identification, but it does intervene in politics when necessary. According to the Church’s own teaching, it enters politics as an outsider in order to ensure that the common good is being met and that the dignity of every person is being respected. The Church does not enter the political realm to appease a regime that seeks control of the Church or one that oppresses, tortures, abuses, imprisons, and murders the religious for their beliefs.
If anything, the Church should be entering politics in China in order to rebuke the regime for its violation of the natural rights of the oppressed and abused Chinese faithful.
Gerard T. Mundy teaches philosophy, as a political philosophy/political theory specialist, at a private liberal arts college in New York.