A troubling sign for the Vatican’s deal with China’s Communist Party

By Chad Pecknold, New York Post, December 10, 2019

Speaking before a Chinese Communist body recently, Bishop John Fang Xingyao said: “Love for the homeland must be greater than love for the Church.” That was quite a reversal from the spirit of Saint Thomas More, who declared himself “the king’s good servant but God’s first” — just before Henry VIII had him beheaded in 1535.

Speaking before a Chinese Communist body recently, Bishop John Fang Xingyao said: “Love for the homeland must be greater than love for the Church.” That was quite a reversal from the spirit of Saint Thomas More, who declared himself “the king’s good servant but God’s first” — just before Henry VIII had him beheaded in 1535.

Statements like Fang’s are vindicating those who have raised alarm about the Holy See’s 2018 deal with the Beijing regime.

When the Communists took power in China in 1949, they tried to expel Catholics, but many remained. By 1957, the new regime created a state-run “Catholic” church that was loyal to the Communist Party and ­rejected the authority of the Holy See. This drove underground many Catholics, who didn’t want to betray the successor of Saint Peter. Thus, for decades, China has lived with two Catholic churches, one above ground, the other below.

That changed in 2018, when the Vatican’s secretary of state, Pietro Cardinal Parolin brokered a historic deal with Beijing allowing the pope to appoint or veto bishops approved by the Communists. Supporters hailed it as a great breakthrough, while critics warned that the result would be ideological conformity to a totalitarian regime that would wipe out the underground church and leave Catholicism in China ­utterly compromised.

Bishop Fang’s sentiments tend to vindicate the critics. Since the deal, moreover, authorities have destroyed two Marian shrines and “disappeared” an underground bishop. At least in the short term, it seems, the deal has been a win for Beijing’s godless apparatchiks and a loss for historic Christianity in the Middle Kingdom.

Previous pontiffs have been aware of both the dangers and the hope of reconciliation. Pope John Paul II recognized many bishops from the pro-Communist ­patriotic church — including Bishop Fang, who was jointly ordained in 1997. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a “Letter to Chinese Catholics” expressing hope for state recognition of the Holy See. Parolin’s deal has achieved what Benedict sought, but otherwise its terms remain secret.

The Catholic Church has a long history of entering into accords with nations. Medieval kings claimed the right to choose the bishops in their land. Numerous popes refused, but shrewdly contending with worldly power has ever been part of apostolic life. Even the very uncompromising Saint Augustine recognized that “making disciples of all nations” would sometimes require compromise, so popes have been willing to make such deals so long as the faith isn’t compromised.

The concordat of 1801, signed by Napoleon and Pope Pius VII, aimed to bring an end to the conflict between French revolutionaries and the Roman church. Napoleon would ­select bishops and control the church’s finances in France; in exchange, Catholic clergy could return from exile to serve the French faithful.

The concordat established a kind of national church that recognized the pope but was under state control. This created years of tension, and Pope Leo XIII would eventually advise a policy of ralliement, “rallying” to the cause of the ­republic to transform it from within.

A different example comes from the church’s 1933 concordat with Germany, signed to protect the Catholic Church from National Socialism. The Nazis breached the agreement almost immediately. Several years later, Pope Pius XI wrote his famous letter to German Catholics, “With Burning Passion,” urging them to resist the temptations of “national religion” and condemning those who would “subject a divine structure” to the demands of a total state.

Then there are the church’s dealings with countries behind the Iron Curtain. Here, the church pursued a minimalist policy of survival by agreeing not to criticize the Communist governments of the Soviet sphere. It was deeply compromising, allowing the Communists to penetrate the church. That is, until a charismatic Polish pope resolved to consign Soviet Communism to the ash bin of history.

So is China more like Napoleonic and Third Republic France, Nazi Germany or the Cold War countries? Time will tell.

For now, the Holy See is walking the long road to reconciliation. The Catholic Church thinks not in terms of five-year plans, but centuries and millennia. With God all things are possible. Still, early indications are that the deal with China looks more like the failed concords with National Socialism and Soviet Communism. Catholics must pray for the deal’s success — but beware of Catholicism with Chinese Communist characteristics.

Chad Pecknold is an associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America. Twitter: @CCPecknold

This article first appeared HERE.