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It should be a matter of concern to more than Catholics that the Vatican is considering an agreement with Beijing that would give the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) effective control over all Roman Catholics in mainland China and Hong Kong.

Presently, there are two communities in China with the word “Catholic” in their name. One is named the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) and is led by “illegitimate” bishops appointed by the Chinese government with neither input nor approval from the Vatican. The CPA toes the line for a government that, among other things, forbids all attempts at evangelization. As Cardinal Joseph Zen put it, “The official bishops are not really preaching the gospel. They are preaching obedience to Communist authority.”

The true Catholic Church in China, in communion with the Holy See and in the line of apostolic succession — things that are crucial to Catholics — is an underground church led by bishops that have been consecrated and sent from the Vatican. It meets in secret and under constant threat of suppression and jail time for its priests. 

The state-controlled CPA is the latest of the CCP’s attempts to remove religion as an independent force in China. Since Mao Dzedong and the Red Army took over China in 1947, all Christian churches have been suppressed and persecuted. Persecution of the Catholic Church, which at the time of the revolution accounted for three-quarters of China’s Christians, was particularly severe and unrelenting. Under Mao and his Cultural Revolution, the physical violence against the church and torture of priests and religious became even worse. (One could go on for pages with just the highlights of atrocities committed under Mao’s regime.)

Persecution of the leaders of today’s church who refuse to acknowledge the authority of the illegitimate bishops continues. Here is one example: 

During his ordination as auxiliary bishop of Shanghai in July, 2012, Bishop Ma Daqin allowed the three consecrating bishops who are in communion with the Holy See to lay hands on him. But he refused to be touched by an illegitimate, state-supported bishop. He then announced his resignation from the CPA, to hearty applause from the large congregation. Shortly thereafter, Bishop Ma was arrested by Communist officers. He is still being detained in an official Catholic seminary and being “re-educated.” Recently the CPA released photos of a show Mass that Bishop Ma had been coerced into concelebrating with an excommunicated “bishop.”

According to Reuters, the Vatican is agreeing to appoint excommunicated bishops chosen by the Chinese government to replace two bishops chosen and consecrated by the Vatican. Going further, the Vatican would pardon and legitimize all the current government-appointed bishops. In exchange, the Chinese government would appoint the replaced bishops to lower positions in the state-controlled body, and give the Vatican some sort of say in negotiations over the appointment of bishops going forward. 

It is hard to see what the Catholic Church gains from this agreement — which grants to the state-sponsored organization the very recognition that the heroic Bishop Ma refused to give it. What it gives away is immense. 

The ecclesiastical authority of a bishop over his flock is absolute; he is subject to removal only by the Vatican. With Communist Chinese bishops, however, the Chinese government would enjoy extraordinary power — both political and ecclesiastical — over the faithful Catholics who have already endured decades of suppression without losing their faith. Such bishops could, for instance, deny the sacraments to anyone seen as a political dissident, create their own catechisms, or establish an order for the Mass that taught Communist values rather than the faith that has been handed down by the church.

We remember Saint Thomas More for putting his loyalty to the teachings of the Catholic Church and the pope above his loyalty to his king. Yet today the Vatican is agreeing to an arrangement that is the modern-day equivalent of allowing Henry VIII to appoint his own bishops to get the divorce he wanted. A bishop can have only one ecclesiastical loyalty. 

Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, has sharply criticized the agreement: “So, do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all they are doing in recent years and months.” “Maybe the pope is a little naive, he doesn’t have the background to know the Communists in China,” he continued. “The pope used to know the persecuted Communists [in Latin America], but he may not know the Communist persecutors who have killed hundreds of thousands.”

What the CCP wants in this and many other matters is to exercise more control over every aspect of thought in China. The CCP’s strategy for control seems to be to encourage a crony-capitalist version of private enterprise with a society of atheist consumers, while keeping political and spiritual matters under its thumb. The underground church has been resisting it despite suppression and persecution for 70 years. 

The struggle between the church and China is not like the Papal Wars in Italy in the 19th century, which were over temporal control of papal lands. That kind of conflict needs compromise and a peaceful solution. That was ultimately achieved in Italy, and led to the Church’s current position on separation of church and state.

By contrast, the current conflict in China is over spiritual authority: specifically, whether the church leaders who have demonstrated their ability and determination to preserve and teach an unaltered faith are to be replaced by leaders chosen for political conformity in a country where that is an enforceable requirement. There can be no compromise in such a struggle without betraying the Catholics who look to their hierarchy to preserve and teach the faith that has been handed down through the succession of bishops since Saint Peter. 

This rapprochement with the Chinese government has every appearance of active co-operation with an institution of evil. According to Freedom House, since Xi Jinping took over the CCP in 2012, authorities have intensified many of their restrictions, resulting in an overall increase in religious persecution. But their actions seem to be strengthening the independent faith communities, which are surviving and spreading despite persecution.

Putting all Catholics under the control of the CPA would be a betrayal of all the martyrs who resisted the atrocities of Mao and the Red Guards as well as the priests and bishops who have paid with jail terms and torture for maintaining allegiance to the pope rather than the CCP. But if Freedom House is correct that communities of faith are being strengthened by their resistance to repression, a pre-emptive surrender could turn the tide in favor of the repressive regime.

This conflict is not just of concern for Catholics. Betraying Chinese Catholics would also dishearten the other denominations in China, which have no global authority to defend their faith. One explanation reported for the Vatican’s rapprochement is the rapid growth of Protestant and evangelical numbers. The hope is that official relations between the Catholic Church and the Chinese government would allow the Church to compete more effectively against other denominations. It is more likely that by caving to Chinese demands, the Vatican will open the door to even more intense persecution of members of other denominations who continue to resist government control. This is not an ecumenical approach.

Nor is this what the underground church in China wants. The Vatican needs to remember our Savior’s words in Mark 3:25: “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” And if that is not enough, the Vatican should remember the scandal when it recalled Cardinal Mindzenty from Hungary to make peace with its Communist oppressors. 

We Americans believe in religious freedom because it is a universal moral principle, one that should be valid for the rest of the world as well as the United States. We need to let the Vatican and the Chinese government know that allowing the Chinese government to choose who runs the Catholic Church in China would be a violation of one of the most basic human rights. 

W. David Montgomery writes about economic, political and religious topics from his home in St Michaels, MD. He is retired from a career of teaching, government service, and consulting, in which his most recent work dealt with interactions between political and economic freedom and the current plight of developing countries.

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