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If you sup with the devil, you’d better bring a long spoon.” In dealing with China, it’s a piece of folk wisdom the Vatican might want to take more seriously.  

Concordats have a long and checkered pedigree in Christian history. Over the centuries in Europe, emperors, kings, and governments often had a role in selecting bishops and in regulating the public life of believers. The Church survived them all. More recent Vatican diplomacy—the Holy See’s 1933 deal with Hitler’s Third Reich and its later Ostpolitik policies in Soviet bloc nations—has been more problematic. In both these cases the Church found herself dealing with a new kind of state creature. She faced not merely national regimes with their parochial ambitions, but systematic ideologies that were, in effect, rival political religions demanding the submission of a citizen’s whole being, body and soul.

Modern China is such a creature. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been very adroit at building its economic and military power, growing its global influence, and raising its people’s standard of living. It’s been equally skilled at keeping power, crushing all forms of religion it doesn’t control, and resisting democracy. Western hopes that capitalism would liberalize the Beijing regime have cratered. Instead, Western businesses have found it hard to disentangle themselves from dependency on Chinese production and markets. If the past 40 years are judged as an economic and political chess match, China won.

As for matters of faith: Religious freedom has not improved in China. In many ways, it has deteriorated. With the possible exception of North Korea, China is the most aggressively atheist state on the planet. Beijing is an equal opportunity persecutor. No religious community of any tradition is allowed to exist outside state surveillance and control.  

Given these circumstances, and in seeking to ensure the survival of Chinese Catholics, the Vatican worked out a two-year provisional deal in 2018, secret in its details, that allows Beijing a hand in the selection of China’s bishops. That deal expires this month. The Vatican is eager to renew it. In the words of one senior Vatican official, without such a deal “we would have found ourselves—not immediately, but ten years down the line—with very few bishops, if any, still in communion with the pope . . . If we don’t begin now, that’s the future.”

This Roman view is not without seeming merit. One can argue that China is our century’s rising power, with the United States and Europe past their prime. The future of the Church lies in Asia and Africa. The Church has been around for 2,000 years, surviving persecutions and adapting to new environments. The Church outlasted Nero and Diocletian, Islamic conquest and communism. She can surely outlast the CCP.

The trouble with that reasoning, argues Mr. Lai Chee Ying, better known as “Jimmy Lai,” is that it’s disastrously naïve. The current pontificate’s outreach to China is, for Lai, fatally flawed at the expense of China’s Christian believers. 

I interviewed Jimmy Lai for the Napa Institute in early October. Take the time to view it.  For anyone concerned about the Church in China, it’s essential to hear and see this man speak for himself. Lai has a global profile as one of the most successful and prominent entrepreneurs in Asia. He’s also a strong and vocal supporter of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. This led to his arrest and detainment in August under China’s new national security law. Though he faces possible jail time, he continues to speak and work against Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion.

My interview goal was to talk about politics and gradually work around to religion. Instead, Lai turned almost immediately to matters of religious conviction. A convert to the Catholic faith in the late 1990s, in part through the influence of his impressive wife Teresa, Lai is a close friend of Hong Kong’s bishop emeritus Cardinal Joseph Zen. His passion for the Church and for Christianity’s importance to China’s future is compelling. And he is outspoken in his warnings that any Vatican deal with the current Beijing regime will amount to a betrayal of faithful Christians in China.

However good the Vatican’s intentions, Lai believes that Rome drastically misreads the CCP’s durability, its patient shrewdness, its hostility, and its determination to replace any independent understanding of God or gods with its own omnipotence. The Church may think long-term, says Lai, but so does the party; and in one form or another, China has been around even longer than the Church. What the CCP cannot provide, according to Lai, is a humane, comprehensive system of “morality and values” that speaks to a life of virtue and satisfies the Chinese soul. This is why the CCP intensely distrusts Christianity and the organizational resilience of the Catholic Church in particular.

Lai praised the Trump administration and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for their commitment to religious liberty, but also for what he sees as their realism and toughness in dealing with China on a range of sensitive issues. He expressed his perplexity and disappointment—his deep disappointment—that Pope Francis had refused to even meet with Cardinal Zen during Zen’s recent visit to Rome; the cardinal had made the trip to offer his counsel on China-related matters.

Again: Watch the interview. If you sup with the devil, you’d better bring a long spoon. The Vatican, for Jimmy Lai, seems to be heading for dinner unaware that the Church herself is on the menu. 

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior research associate in Constitutional studies at the University of Notre Dame. He interviewed Lai Chee Ying in his capacity as a board member of the Napa Institute.

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