Is the Vatican about to abandon Roman Catholics in China?

It should be a matter of concern to everyone—not just Roman Catholics-- that Pope Francis I is considering an agreement with Beijing that would give the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) effective control over all Roman Catholics in mainland China and Hong Kong.  Every governmental and private organization that values religious freedom – especially our American Catholic bishops – need to urge him to reverse course and join in defending religious freedom.

This is just the latest of the Communist Party’s attempts to remove religion as an independent force in China—but the first in which the Vatican has cooperated, after decades of resistance to state-controlled religion.

Currently there are two communities in China with the word “Catholic” in their name. One is the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), led by bishops appointed by the Chinese government with neither input nor approval from the Vatican. Indeed, these self-anointed bishops have all been excommunicated in Rome. 

The CPA toes the line for the government that, among other things, forbids all attempts at evangelization—that is, spreading the word of God that is the Church’s fundamental mission. Instead, the CPA allows the government to register places of worship and membership lists and to manage theological content—and gives China’s secret police a means of keeping tabs on those who consider God a higher moral authority than the party.

The true Catholic Church in China, in communion with the Holy See and in the line of apostolic succession – things that are crucial to Catholics – is an underground church led by bishops who have been consecrated and sent to it from the Vatican.  It meets in secret and under constant threat of suppression and jail time for its priests.

The violent persecution of all Christians by the Communist regime drove it underground 70 years ago, and its estimated 10 million members have preferred to remain faithful to the pope rather than accept the government’s counterfeit.

During the time of Mao Zedong, churches were leveled and priests and members of religious orders were regularly tortured and executed.  These practices have largely been replaced these days by administrative discrimination and penalties for those who practice their faiths outside the structures and ways approved by the government.

Nevertheless, persecution of Church leaders who refuse to acknowledge the authority of the illegitimate bishops continues.  During his ordination as auxiliary bishop of Shanghai in July, 2012, for example, Bishop Ma Daqin allowed the three consecrating bishops who are in communion with the Holy See to lay hands on him, but refused to be touched by an illegitimate, state-supported bishop. He then announced his resignation from the CPA, to hearty applause from the large congregation.

Shortly thereafter Bishop Ma was arrested. He was reportedly detained in an official Catholic seminary and “re-educated.”

Recently the CPA released photos of a show Mass that Bishop Ma had been coerced into concelebrating with an excommunicated “bishop.”

According to Reuters, the Vatican is agreeing to appoint previously excommunicated bishops chosen by the Chinese government to replace two bishops chosen and consecrated by the Vatican. Going further, the Vatican would pardon and legitimize all current government-appointed bishops. 

In exchange the Chinese government would give the replaced bishops lower-level official positions in the state-controlled CPA, and in the future give the Vatican some unspecified say in negotiations over the appointment of bishops.

It is hard to see what the Roman Catholic Church gains from this agreement. It grants to the state-sponsored organization the very recognition that the heroic Bishop Ma refused to give it. 

What it gives away is immense—the spiritual assets of the Church in China, which are, after all, its only real patrimony. 

The spiritual authority of a recognized Roman Catholic bishop over his flock is absolute, subject only to his removal by the Vatican.  Bishops chosen for loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and outside Vatican authority could deny the sacraments to anyone seen as a political dissident, an extraordinary power over faithful Catholics.  They could create their own catechisms and establish an order for the Mass that taught Communist values rather than the faith that has been handed down by the Church. 

This almost happened in Nicaragua, where dissident priests tried to set up a People’s Church to support the Russian-backed Sandinistas, until Pope St. John Paul II stepped in.

We remember Saint Thomas More for putting his loyalty to the teaching of the Catholic Church and the pope above his life and loyalty to his King, yet the Vatican is agreeing to an arrangement in which Henry VIII could have appointed his own bishop to get the divorce he wanted—the basis of a separate Church known as Anglican.

But at least Henry VIII and his bishops and archbishops believed in God. China’s communists believe the opposite—a fact that just as much as Vatican authority has played a historic role in the Church’s opposition to a puppet Chinese church.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, has sharply criticized the bruited agreement:  “So, do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all they are doing in recent years and months.”

“Maybe the pope is a little naive, he doesn’t have the background to know the Communists in China,” Zen  continued.  “The pope used to know the persecuted Communists [in Latin America], but he may not know the Communist persecutors who have killed hundreds of thousands.”

Putting all Catholics under the control of the CPA seems a betrayal of those martyrs who suffered Mao’s atrocities, as well as the priests and bishops who were jailed and tortured for maintaining allegiance to the Pope rather than the CCP.  

The Vatican needs to be told by those who value religious freedom that allowing Chinese Communists to choose who will run the Roman Catholic Church in China is a violation of the most basic of human rights—and of the spiritual history of the Church itself. 

David Montgomery recently retired as Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting after a 40 year career of teaching, government service and consulting. He was previously Assistant Director of the U.S. Congressional Budget Office and taught economics at Caltech and Stanford University.