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Sometimes a grand betrayal serves as a mirror of truth, revealing that a person or institution has travelled so far from its origins that it has become something altogether different.  

The pact signed by Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov in the summer of 1939 is a case in point. This treaty of non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which stunned the world in general and the left in particular, put paid to any illusions that Soviet Russia was a workers’ state.  

The American communist Walter Gourlay satirized the treaty in a song, “oh my darling party line,” while the Spanish Civil War veteran, George Orwell, was moved to write his dystopian classic, 1984, about a world in which alliances shifted at dizzying speed and boots stamped on human faces forever. But party-liners could always be found to defend it.

While the treaty lasted, Stalin not only transported commodities to Germany in exchange for goods and equipment, but also delivered German communist refugees to certain death in Nazi Germany. In its wake, Poland was carved up by the Nazis and the Soviets; my Polish communist great-grandfather disappeared into Dachau, never to return. Eventually his daughter—my grandmother—would make a similar journey into a concentration camp’s maw, but she would survive. Meanwhile her husband-to-be was captured by the Russians and sent to a gulag, only narrowly escaping the fate of many other Polish officers.

The world’s one billion Catholics received a similar shock in September when the Holy See announced it had come to a historic deal with China, a state that continues to persecute Catholics and other minorities mercilessly. Catholicism in China has for decades been divided between the state-backed Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) and the Underground Church, which has remained loyal to Rome. Persecution has been an ongoing occupational hazard for the underground faithful.

The details of the deal were not disclosed, but it seems that the officially atheist Chinese state has been given some say in choosing the country’s bishops, thereby determining the type of Catholicism shared with the people. All signs indicate that the state has very definite ideas about what kind of Catholicism that should be. This policy of controlling and exploiting the Church is called sinicization. The state even has a five-year plan, produced by the CPCA, for bringing the Chinese Catholic Church into greater harmony with Chinese culture and politics. The Chinese are being served a state-controlled ersatz Catholicism with Vatican approval.  

With this deal, the Vatican has brought the Chinese Patriotic Church back into the fold. But as for the faithful underground Church, which has guarded the faith with heroic courage for decades, nothing has been said. Like the inconvenient commissars of the Soviet past, it has been erased from the narrative. 

Pope Francis is said to want to “normalize” the situation of China’s Catholics, and it seems he has achieved exactly that. The default state for Chinese Catholics, after all, is one of persecution and harassment, and there is no indication that this has changed. In October two Marian shrines—one in Shanxi and the other in Guizhou—were destroyed. Just last month four underground priests were detained in Hebei for indoctrination. All this was sadly predictable, yet party-liners and neo-ultramontanists are on hand to defend the deal and make Alice in Wonderland–style claims about its alleged benefits from the comfort of their western privilege. 

Some who defended the deal argued that it would bring opportunities to evangelize. But evangelization that follows a totalitarian state-controlled script is hardly worthy of the term. The lesson of Christian history, especially in Korea, is that evangelization tends to be unsuccessful when the Church is associated with collaborationist currents.

The love between senior Vatican officials and Xi’s regime is also bizarre. Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, described the Chinese state as “extraordinary.” “You do not have shantytowns, you do not have drugs, young people do not take drugs,” he raved, saying that instead, there is a “positive national conscience” and “the economy does not dominate politics, as happens in the United States, something Americans themselves would say.” He added: “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.” If Catholic Social Teaching were characterized by crackdowns on labor activists, widespread use of the death penalty, and the incarceration of dissidents in so-called “Laogai,” or concentration camps, Sorondo would have a point. 

Concentration camps are not the stuff of black-and-white newsreels, but a terrifying reality in China. The country’s Muslim Uighur minority has been specifically targeted, with one million reportedly incarcerated in camps. A month ago the U.S. Congressional Executive Committee on China warned in its annual report that this “may be the largest incarceration of an ethnic minority population since World War II, and that it may constitute crimes against humanity.”  

These words finally forced my hand. As the granddaughter of camp survivors I appreciate that there are times when some form of public protest, no matter how small, must be made against oppression. So I organized and composed a letter to the Catholic Herald criticizing the pact, which was countersigned by a number of others. It was the least I could do for my grandparents, for my great-grandfather, for Chinese Catholics, the Uighurs, and all victims of totalitarianism who feel as betrayed by the Vatican-China deal as sincere socialists felt about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. I am my brother’s keeper.

Catherine Lafferty is a journalist in London.

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