On October 22, the Vatican renewed its 2018 provisional agreement with China. The two parties agreed to a two-year extension of the agreement and will keep the text of the deal concealed. Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong has accused the Holy See of accepting terms that will “kill our Church.” It’s hard to disagree with this dire pronouncement—which prompts the question, why did the Vatican do it?
For the last few months, China maintained silence regarding its intentions, while the Vatican seemed eager to renew the agreement. After China finally agreed to an extension, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin “expressed satisfaction for the results of the Agreement” at a press conference in Milan. Parolin lauded it as a “remarkable step forward”: “All the bishops in China are in communion with the Pope. There are no more illegitimate bishops.” But this deal has been negotiated almost entirely on Beijing’s terms.
Little progress has been made on the single issue addressed in the agreement—ensuring the pope has a say in new appointments of Catholic bishops. About 40 episcopal sees in China need new appointments. “There has been no new appointment or ordination” of bishops under the 2018 agreement, according to Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, editor of Asia News. The two appointments cited in the media, Bishop Antonio Yao Shun (Inner Mongolia) and Bishop Stefano Xu Hongwei (Shaanxi), “had both been decided many years earlier and cannot be attributed to the agreement,” Cervellera documents. On October 22, Parolin alluded to this failure, albeit with a positive spin. He declared that “processes for new episcopal appointments are underway.”
Moreover, as an agreement pre-condition, Pope Francis lifted excommunication for all seven of Beijing’s bishops. He accepted appointments for two of them, including to the Mindong diocese, where the pope had asked underground bishop Guo Xijin to step down to an auxiliary post. His replacement, Bishop Zhan Silu, promptly led 33 diocesan priests to a “formation course” at the Central Institute of Socialism with the Chinese Communist Party’s local United Front. Zhan declared: “To carry out the sinicization of religion with determination, we will continue to follow a path that conforms to socialist society.”
China never recognized some 30 underground bishops and the agreement doesn’t mention them. The CCP, exploiting the secrecy of the agreement, has pressed these bishops to sign a pledge of “independence” from the Vatican for registration in the CCP-affiliated Catholic Patriotic Association, which now effectively represents the “unified” Chinese Church. Making this pledge would be apostasy, Cardinal Zen has stated.
Many underground bishops have recently endured detention, isolation, brainwashing, and abuse for refusing the independence pledge. They face the Hobson’s choice of signing it and rejecting Vatican authority, or not signing it and thus resisting “unity.” (China hasn’t cooperated with the Vatican’s post-agreement pastoral guidelines that suggest clergy exempt themselves from the independence clause.) Bishop Guo eventually resigned as auxiliary in Mindong, writing on October 4 that he won’t “become an obstacle to progress.”
Since 2018, China has aggressively “sinicized” churches, distorting and depopulating them. It implements oppressive religious regulations involving censorship, high-tech surveillance, clerical detention, church demolitions, and more. Churches must ban youth. CCP principles and President Xi’s sayings must inspire sermons. The CCP is retranslating the Bible; it is expected to drop the Book of Revelation and depict Jesus stoning the adulterous woman.
At the press conference in Milan, Parolin coolly waved aside religious freedom concerns: “We do not think that the Agreement can solve all the problems in China.” He dismissed those who asked about the persecuted Church: “But, what persecutions . . . You have to use the words correctly. There are regulations that are imposed and which concern all religions, and certainly also concern the Catholic Church.”
The Vatican has not protested the genocidal detentions and forced labor of a million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. In a July 5 speech, Pope Francis remained silent on violence against pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, though the embargoed printed address noted the issue.
Diplomatic rapprochement with China has long been a single-minded pursuit for Vatican negotiators. I first observed this 25 years ago, when a senior Vatican negotiator took me to task for compiling a list of names of then-imprisoned Chinese bishops. As he told me at a Washington meeting, my list could interfere with his dialogue. And ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who conducted shuttle diplomacy with China, spread CCP propaganda to the U.S. Commission on International Freedom (on which we were commissioners). He too did not want to risk the Vatican’s dialogue by criticizing Beijing’s persecution of the underground Church. For example, he told the commission that Bishop Su Zhimin was free, not a Catholic bishop, and did not need the Church’s help—all egregiously false claims, as I demonstrated in a January 2000 letter to him.
Pope Francis has publicly taken responsibility for signing the deal. It is unclear how much he knows about the situation on the ground or Cardinal Zen’s unanswered requests to brief him in September, after the cardinal had flown to Rome. What is certain, in Cervellera’s words: “this slender agreement is the beginning of a dream that all the popes have cherished: to have a relationship with this great country, after the expulsion by Mao Zedong of the nuncio Antonio Riberi in 1951.”
Given that the CCP is now energetically working to consolidate totalitarian control over civil society, this partnership comes at a very high price—for the Chinese Catholic Church and for the Vatican’s moral authority.
Nina Shea is director and senior fellow of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.