The Vatican-China Agreement: When the Music Stops

Pope Francis has made a bad deal with the Chinese government. The agreement reached with mainland authorities is not helping Catholics and other Christians as much as even its architects’ attenuated hopes warranted. It has hamstrung the Church and muted her moral witness at a crucial time.

By Christopher R. Altieri for The Editors, Catholic Herald, January 1, 2021

Ever since September of 2018, when the Holy See announced its provisional agreement with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops, critics of the arrangement have been vocal. Some of them have been strident – and many of those criticisms have been misplaced, or have arisen from a misapprehension of the Vatican’s purposes in reaching the accord. That does not make the deal any better than it is, but it does suggest that the business requires some readjustment of focus.

Christians are not the only religious believers to suffer in China, nor do Christians suffer the worst of the government’s barbarities.

The Chinese government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, for example, is wicked beyond execration.

The Chinese government has reportedly detained more than one million Uighurs in “re-education” camps. The government denied the camps’ existence until they couldn’t anymore. Gruesome stories have emerged, of fantastic cruelty perpetrated with workaday efficiency.

It is no comfort to the suffering Christians, that one may yet attempt to couch their woes in terms adequate to the discovery of their ghastliness: The suffering of Christians in China is atrocious.

Meanwhile, “accompaniment” appears to be the order of the day – established by the highest authority in the Vatican – rather than confrontation.

I have said in these pages before, that there are defensible reasons for accepting an imperfect deal. There are also defensible reasons for keeping its terms under wraps. An imperfect deal may well be better than none at all, especially if one’s goals are modest. Not publishing the terms creates leeway for the parties to figure out how their arrangement works in practice, without having to call each other out publicly for violations.

The Holy See’s short-term goals appear to be twofold: ending the seven-decades’ schism between the so-called “Patriotic Church” and the Church in communion with the pope; and staving off full-blown, systemic and deadly attack — “Diocletian-level persecution,” as I have described the grim vision in these pages — accomplished with the tools available to a post-industrial totalitarian surveillance state.

There’s more one might say for the policy, such as it is: that the secular arm has almost always had a say in who the bishop would be; that the Vatican did business with Communists in Europe; that it is never prudent to make the perfect the enemy of the good; that this deal, right now, is as good as it gets.

Then again, prominent voices have urged all that and more against the policy: that history shows how often the secular arm’s having a say in choosing bishops has been bad for the Church, for political order, and for civil society; that the Church’s relations with Eastern European Communists sometimes left the Church powerless and compromised; and that it is never wise to let the good keep us from pursuing the perfect; that the Church stands for the weak – the powerless, the marginalized and disenfranchised – or she does not.

Among the ecclesiastical critics of the arrangement, none has been more carefully outspoken than Joseph Cardinal Zen, emeritus of Hong Kong.

Cardinal Zen

“I love China,” he said in a letter recently published by Religion Unplugged, “China is not the Communist Party.” In his November 2018 op/ed in The New York Times, Cardinal Zen called Chinese Catholics to patient faithfulness and the long view, writing: “Communism is not eternal.” One implication of his reasoning is that he does not want his beloved people to look on the darkness of the Communist period and see how the Church danced with their brutal erstwhile overlords.

That, too, is a legitimate concern.

If Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Gallagher are clear-eyed regarding the terms of their arrangement, so is Cardinal Zen in his estimation of its effect. The Holy See would avoid their partner’s toes while the music plays, but good performance on the floor will not secure the Church a place when the music stops.

Meanwhile, the government closes churches, arrests Christian leaders, harasses Chinese Christians, and generally makes itself felt in the lives of citizens, in an implacable attempt to destroy real Christianity in China.

This article first appeared HERE.