Is the Vatican's Deal with China a Pyrrhic Victory?

Is the Vatican's Deal with China a Pyrrhic Victory?
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The Vatican's warm new relationship with the Chinese government is being hailed as a diplomatic victory by the Pope’s supporters. If it is a victory, I’m very afraid it could very well be a pyrrhic one. If so, it will be due to a naïve and misplaced trust in an authoritarian regime whose ill-will toward the faithful of any religion is growing more fierce each day—Catholicism not excluded.

Perhaps there is nothing so clarifying as seeing oppression in person.

The first thing I saw in China on my visit to adopt my daughter a few years ago robbed me of any illusions I might have had about my child’s birth-country. While walking toward the bus that awaited our group at the Beijing airport, I saw a tiny, elderly beggar woman trying to approach us, seeking alms. Two uniformed policemen stopped her and roughly hustled her around the corner of an adjacent bus. There, they began beating her with their truncheons. I had never seen anyone being beaten before and, as I boarded our bus, I was weeping almost as hard as the poor old lady.

I wish I could somehow replay that scene so that Pope Francis could see it. 

Of course, the cruel oppression of the weak by the powerful happens everywhere. But authoritarian, atheist China has been perfecting its techniques of repression for many decades, and I’m afraid that Pope Francis may not have his finger on that nation’s pulse.

How else to explain the Vatican’s recent agreement with China, in which the Pope granted Beijing’s Communist government the power to designate the bishops who will lead his Chinese flock? The 7 bishops chosen by China are members of the Catholic Patriotic Association.

The CPA is the official state-sponsored Church that Pope Benedict not so long said had statutes irreconcilable with Catholic doctrine, including complete independence from Vatican oversight. In return for giving the Chinese Communist government the power to name its Catholic bishops – an unprecedented deferral of one of a pope’s most significant powers – Beijing will recognize (for the first time since 1951) that the pope in Rome is the head of the Catholic Church in China. This seems rather an empty gesture, coming as it does during one of Communist China’s periodic crackdowns on faith and believers.

Premier Xi Jinping has made no bones about his desire to crush religion, which he considers a threat to the Communist state. Assaults on Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians are ramping up. Freedom House writes that recently “religious groups have been swept up in a broader tightening of CCP control over civil society and an increasingly anti-Western ideological bent under Xi Jinping.” The regime routinely tortures tens of thousands of religious prisoners in China and sometimes kills them outright. Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims face even higher levels of religious persecution than do Christians. UN experts estimated in August that approximately 3 million Muslims have been sent to cultural reeducation camps just in the province of Xinjiang. According to ChinaAid, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization, recent outrages against Christians include the demolition of churches, the imprisonment of thousands of worshipers and pastors, and the removal of hundreds rooftop crosses. Just a few days ago, four brave underground priests in Hebei province who refused to join the CPA were sent away to be “indoctrinated.” Their flocks are heartbroken.

In China, religious persecution drives worship deep underground, out of reach to the growing millions of Chinese who feel an urgent need for transcendence and meaning beyond Communist politics. The state-sponsored churches, such as the CPA, lack the credibility of the underground movements that regularly produce martyrs of the faith. This is because, as Pope Benedict wrote in a letter to his Chinese flock, official recognition “obliges the people involved to adopt attitudes, make gestures and undertake commitments that are contrary to the dictates of their conscience as Catholics.” The faithful know this and are mistrustful of the government-sponsored church. It is also knows that the CPA bishops recently rubber-stamped by the Vatican as part of the deal are chosen for their complete acquiescence to the Party. They are considered to be nothing but puppets who will do what they are told. 

Pope Francis’ message to Chinese Catholics upon the signing of the new agreement is long on reconciliation and cooperation with the communist government. It is, however, short on demands for liberty and mercy for his persecuted faithful, who understand it’s nigh impossible for a good Catholic to also be a good Communist. As if on cue, the Chinese government has shown their bad faith by taking an underground-Church bishop into custody for “indoctrination." His crime? Refusal to join the CPA out of loyalty to Pope Francis, who elected him in 2016.

The clandestine Church in China feels abandoned, betrayed, and alone. Sadly, they have every reason to feel this way.

Once back in the United States with our new Chinese daughter, we promptly had her baptized a Roman Catholic. To us, her christening felt like a great rescue. Not only had we brought our daughter home to an adoring family and to citizenship in a country where police beatings in airport parking lots are illegal. We had also given her faith and the liberty to practice that faith openly and safely. This is something all Chinese people deserve, and something that any agreement with the Vatican should have as its first and unmovable goal.

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