China is passing through “a second cultural revolution”, or at least a return to further conflation of State and Communist Party. Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Party and President of the Peoples Republic embodies the ethos of the regime. This year the National People’s Congress lifted term limits on his stay in power. Since 2012, repression of dissent and a quest for complete Party control of all major institutions has gained momentum under his autocratic rule. A symptom of this development, relations with religions were transferred in March from the State’s Department of Religious Affairs to the Party’s United Front Work Department formerly in charge of ethnic minorities, traditionally a peripheral - dangerous - phenomenon.
In China, citizens and Churches are banned from using the internet for anything that might be seen as evangelization. Party/Government employees are not allowed to express a religious faith. There is a general prohibition on young people under eighteen attending churches. In strong Christian centres such as Wenzhou City in Zheijang Province, medical staff, school and university teachers have a duty to report religious behavior; OFSTED-style inspections ensure compliance. In some schools, students must submit a formal commitment not to “believe in religions”. Even family prayers can fall under local oversight. In Luzhou Catholic Diocese, crosses on churches have been pulled down and priests ordered to fly the national flag with a portrait of the President displayed prominently in the building. Overall some 1,500 churches have lost their crosses.
How much is zealous local initiative or on direct orders from Beijing is unclear. This level of repression is far from uniform across the country. The large Zion church in Beijing was shut down in February. Non-Party Protestant and house churches suffer more. The Xinjiang Muslim Uighurs suffer most with an estimated million people now dispersed into “re-education camps”.
This persecution has three drivers: Sinicization, the Party’s demand that religion “serve overall interests of the nation and the Chinese people and support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party”; fear of religions’ disruptive power, viewed as irrational and emotional, in contrast to an ordered and harmonious development of Chinese society. Finally, less overtly: China’s historical experience of foreign influences retained and expressed in the mutated form of authoritarian Communist rule with religion feared as an exploitable weapon against Communism and Poland as a warning.
Last month the Vatican signed an historic interim agreement with the Chinese State/Communist Party to resolve the issue of the quasi- schism (relationships are complex) between the government- controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Roman Catholic Church whose bishops are appointed by the Pope. The government will now propose candidates’ names. The Pope will make the final choice of bishop. The excommunication of seven Patriotic Association bishops has been lifted. To date, details of the agreement have not been made public. But assurances have been given to Taiwan that current diplomatic relations will not change.
The interim accord between China and the Vatican was the fruit of many years of difficult negotiation. Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has praised it as a significant achievement for Vatican diplomacy. His were not sentiments universally shared. Timing was unfortunate: an anniversary of the ratification of the Vatican’s 1933 Reichskonkordat with the nascent Nazi Germany that cut the ground from under the Catholic Centre Party, the major source of parliamentary opposition to the National Socialist juggernaut.
But no-one should fear loopholes in the wording of the Accord. Vatican negotiators leave no comma or semi-colon safe from scrutiny. No hostages to fortune pass muster. This is not why many people - most notably emeritus Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong - are opposed. They do not trust the regime to honour its promises.
Was it right to do a deal with Beijing whilst the detention of some dozen priests remains unresolved and persecution grows of people of faith? Isn’t counting on the good faith of the government negotiators and Xi Jinping risky? And is this another assault on the Church’s moral integrity? The answers hinge on your understanding of the purpose of Vatican diplomacy in the life of the Church.
Vatican diplomats mainly aim to do two, sometimes incompatible, things: to promote the implementation of the living tradition of Catholic social teaching around the world, seeking peace and justice, and also to nurture and protect Catholic communities. For example, Vatican diplomacy came in strongly behind the Jubilee Campaign to reduce Third World debt and in support of poverty reduction strategies. But it held back, for example, from public criticism of US bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia limiting itself to diplomatic initiatives for peace and pauses in the air-strikes. In the first instance priority was given to moral leadership on debt reduction. In the second, criticism of what had become an offensive war with savage bombing of Hanoi/Haiphong, prosecuted by the USA, was much delayed; protection of South Vietnam’s then large Catholic population from Communist take-over took prededence.*
What was the Vatican’s thinking when it came to dealing with communist China? There was a benign precedent in a recent Accord with Vietnam. There was historically the equivocal experience of Ostpolitik after the second Vatican Council, a diplomatic démarche to Communist States that evoked the prolonged resistance of the Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty and other eastern bloc bishops. I suspect that Rome thought a divided Church in China would not survive the mounting tide of persecution. The nurture and protection of the country’s over 12 million Catholics took precedence over a denunciation of human rights abuses. What in Christian-speak is called “the prophetic voice” was muted. Though this has proved contentious, and some bishops appointed by Rome obliged to resign, or retire early, to make way for new “dual control” bishops, the Accord shores up Catholic defenses by building institutional unity.
Experience has taught the Church that a determined and reasonably efficient State has the power to reduce it to a remnant. A prophetic voice can carry high costs in a world of conflicting national interests. The Accord is arguably the least bad strategic option for the Catholic Church in China today. I hope the difficult prudential judgment of the Pope and the lead Catholic negotiators, Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Celli, turns out to be wise. The Protestant Churches must feel more exposed to government pressure. It makes me uncomfortable. But that may have more to do with wanting to enjoy the moral high ground than concern for the moral integrity of Vatican diplomacy, and the fate of China’s Catholics.
*See A. Alexander Stumvoll A Living Tradition: Catholic Social Doctrine and Holy See Diplomacy Cascade Books 2018