Like many others, I received with skepticism the news of a possible deal to resolve the long-standing dispute between China and the Vatican concerning the appointment of bishops and other ecclesial matters. I recognize the need for measured dissent, since none of us can say definitively what approach will, in the long run, be best for the Catholic Church in China. But cautious deference to the insiders’ greater experience in diplomacy and knowledge of the deal’s particulars does not lessen my dismay and bewilderment at recent remarks by Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Speaking to Vatican Insider, Sorondo opined: “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.”
Sorondo’s comments throughout the interview range from naïve to ludicrous, and they verge on an apology for one of the world’s most repressive regimes. The bishop lauds China for its lack of shantytowns, as though the country’s widespread poverty were a secret. The absence of drug use among China’s young, which the bishop cites, is about as plausible as the absence of homosexuals in Iran claimed by that country’s former president. And in praising China’s implementation of Laudato Si’ and defense of the Paris Climate Accord, Sorondo seems oblivious to Beijing’s famously awful smog. “What people don’t realize,” the bishop muses, “is that the central value in China is work, work, work.” What the bishop doesn’t realize is that China is a totalitarian state.
There is no end to what could be said about China’s atrocious record on human rights, from the forced repatriation of North Korean refugees to the detention of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo, who died in custody in July without adequate treatment for his liver cancer. But let me leave aside the restrictions on political and economic liberty and stick with a subject I follow closely—religious freedom—which should be of special concern to the Church (and to all people who affirm the moral principles of Dignitatis Humanae).
The recent Communist Party conference in China entrenched the incumbent leader and his eponymous ideology, Xi Jinping Thought. This ideology entails the “sinicization” of religion, a process of manipulating and subduing faith so as to render it compatible with the state’s totalitarian aims. The brand-new Regulations on Religious Affairs strike at believers by tying religion to extremism, including separatism and terrorism, thereby providing the pretext for suppressing almost any religious activity. Practitioners of Falun Gong, like some other groups labeled “cults,” are already familiar with this tactic. They are victims of some of Beijing’s worst abuses, having long been subjected to the evil of organ harvesting. (A Chinese representative participated prominently in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ February Summit on Organ Trafficking and Transplant Tourism—to some protests.)
Uyghur Muslims in China’s west are banned from fasting during Ramadan, attending mosque if they are under age eighteen, growing beards deemed “abnormal,” and even giving certain Muslim names to their children. The government confiscates their Korans and prayer mats and even places minders in their homes, to ensure that they do not pray or fast. China’s war on Tibetan Buddhists is well known. The government uses its influence internationally against the Dalai Lama. The Panchem Lama was detained by authorities at age six, more than twenty years ago, and his whereabouts remain unknown. This past summer, officials demolished much of Larung Gar, the main center of Tibetan Buddhist learning, leaving thousands of monks and nuns homeless. Similar destruction then took place at the Yachen Gar center.
Christians in China have likewise faced persecution, not least from the government’s assault on affiliation with underground churches. In January, the government razed a megachurch serving fifty thousand worshipers. In Zhejiang Province, authorities have waged a long campaign to remove crosses from the tops of churches, with the “decapitations” numbering around two thousand. In early 2017, the pastor of the unregistered Living Stone Church was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for “divulging state secrets,” and a former deacon was sentenced to five years for “illegal business operations.” In May, the government detained underground Catholic Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou—his fourth detention since the previous September. Even for state-approved entities, surveillance, harassment, and violence complement the government’s usual regimen of registration and regulation of all church activity. With China’s autocrats deeply fearful of the spread of Christianity in their country, these are just a few examples of the repression they perpetrate.
A friend of mine who is an astute commentator on Church affairs speculated that Bishop Sorondo’s words were intended to burnish China’s image and thereby put the pending deal in a better light. If that’s the case, then the Vatican is taking the wrong approach to its messaging. If Church leaders wish to defend a rapprochement, they should first acknowledge that the communist dictatorship’s treatment of believers is harsh and unpredictable, and then argue that, under the circumstances, this is the best way to move forward: A deal will increase the Vatican’s control over the Church in China, open the door to further normalization of relations with China and regularization of the Church there, and bring some much-needed relief to the faithful. This argument might prove unpersuasive, but at least the bishops would not be peddling what I will understatedly call a whitewash.
As Hadley Arkes taught us thirty years ago in the book that became this magazine’s namesake, in politics the critical thing is the character of the regime. To deny the brutal, authoritarian character of the Chinese regime can only serve to blind the Vatican’s diplomats to the real nature of their interlocutors and, thereby, vastly increase the risk of error. The Church should stand as a witness against an ideology that claims the whole of human life for itself—that demands that all be rendered unto Caesar. At least it should not flatter Caesar unduly.
Daniel Mark is chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and a visiting fellow in the Tocqueville Program at the University of Notre Dame. The views expressed here are his own.