September 22: First Anniversary of the Vatican-China Deal

Time for a sober assessment of the agreement. While it would be excessive to state that all Chinese Catholics oppose it, its application is problematic, dissident priests are persecuted, and underlying theological issues on religious liberty remains unsolved.

by Massimo Introvigne

A Catholic church on the coastal road near Damen Shan (大门山) peninsula, Chixi town, Cangnan county, Zhejiang. 
A Catholic church on the coastal road near Damen Shan (大门山) peninsula, Chixi town, Cangnan county, Zhejiang.  (VmenkovCC BY-SA 3.0)

From the Secret Text to the Guidelines

The Vatican-China deal of 2018 was signed one year ago, on September 22, 2018. Its text remains secret to this date. We have been occasionally criticized for our reserved attitude about the agreement. Bitter Winter did not share the enthusiasm of some Vatican media, nor did it join the abrasive criticism of those who believe that Pope Francis has “sold out” the Chinese Catholics to the CCP.

I confess that this has something to do with my personal experience. In 2011, I served as Representative of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) for combating racism, xenophobia, and intolerance and discrimination against Christians and members of other religions. Among the lessons I learned was that the century-old Vatican diplomacy should never be underestimated – and is a peculiar diplomacy, whose horizon is not years or decades, but centuries. Although I do know that the Vatican-China deal was partially negotiated through channels independent from the Vatican diplomacy, I believe the diplomats may play a positive role in interpreting it. On the other hand, Bitter Winter has continued to publish detailed reports of the persecution of the priests and bishops in China who, after the agreement, refused to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), once known as the Patriotic Church. The formulae to be subscribed in order to register with the government and thus join the CPCA are, to say the least, theologically ambiguous, and many in conscience refuse to sign them.

Then, on June 28, 2019, came the Vatican Guidelines of 2019. They largely confirmed the situation that Bitter Winter was describing every day, and two main points of our assessments of the Catholic “problem” in China. First, contrary to what some opponents of the agreement continue to argue, the Vatican no longer maintains that joining the CPCA is not allowed. It states that it is indeed allowed and that bishops and priests are even authorized to sign theologically ambiguous formulae, with the written (if possible) or at least the oral reservation that, no matter what they sign, they do not intend to adhere to non-orthodox positions. Of course, that an oral reservation is enough means that anybody can sign any formula at any time. One can even read between the lines that joining the CPCA is regarded by the Vatican as the normal option for Catholic priests and bishops in China. The Vatican does not believe that an Underground Church exists in China any longer or, if it does, it has no theological or canonical status in the eyes of Rome.

There are, however, individual conscientious objectors, i.e. those priests and bishops who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to register and join the CPCA. We have heard both in Rome and in China comments about the lack of sympathy in the Vatican for these conscientious objectors. Many in the Vatican regard their position as residual, and believe it will gradually disappear. But meanwhile, sympathy or not, the Vatican in the Guidelines asked the CCP to “respect” the conscientious objectors. Their choice is not recommended by Rome but is not forbidden either, which means that joining the CPCA is not mandatory.

This is not the interpretation of the CCP, which continues to intimidate, harass, threaten, and jail the conscientious objectors. For the CCP, the 2018 agreement implies that all Catholics in China should join the CPCA. This is the crux of the matter, even more than the appointment of bishops, where a modus vivendi appears to have been found, although perhaps one where the CCP’s opinion weighs more than the Vatican’s on who should be chosen and eventually appointed by the Pope. For the sake of the good relations with Beijing, Rome may refrain from promoting or openly supporting the conscientious objectors. But it asks that they be “respected,” not put in jail, and insists that claiming that all should join the CPCA is a false interpretation of the agreement.

How Many Conscientious Objectors? We Don’t Know

Of course, the agreement is secret, and we do not know what interpretation is correct. We may be forgiven, however, if we trust the Vatican more than the CCP. What is Bitter Winter’s own opinion? Although we specialize in uncovering and publishing secret CCP documents about religion, we do not know the text of the 2018 agreement either. But we do see its effects. And we try to avoid two excesses, both arising from ideological positions rather than from a candid assessment of the situation in China. Some argue that all or most Chinese Catholics are now “against Pope Francis” who has “betrayed” them and “sold” them to the CCP. Suspiciously, this position is often advertised by Catholics who know next to nothing about China but happen to disagree with Pope Francis on completely unrelated matters. Others argue that all is well among Chinese Catholics, the agreement created a new spring in the Chinese Catholic Church, and that claiming that persecution still exists is just anti-Pope-Francis and anti-Chinese, perhaps “American,” propaganda. Obviously, this position ignores that the ongoing persecution of dissident priests is an established fact.

The truth is in the middle. Conscientious objectors are persecuted, and they feel they are not supported by the Vatican. The Guidelines and other statements, they believe, are not enough, and they weigh that against declarations by high-placed Vatican officers and journalists and intellectuals believed to be close to the Pope hailing the CPCA as an entirely legitimate organization and joining it (perhaps after it will change its name) the unavoidable destiny of all Chinese Catholics. After years of persecution, it is not surprising that they do not trust the CPCA and the CCP. And the continuing harassment of all those who refuse to register and join the CPCA does confirm them in their suspicions.

On the other hand, there are no reliable statistics about the percentage of conscientious objectors. We at Bitter Winter tell their stories, as they are people persecuted for their religious choices. Their human rights and religious freedom are not less worthy of protection than these of other persecuted minorities. We cannot, however, affirm that most of the Chinese priests and bishops who were not part of the CPCA before the agreement are conscientious objectors. Nor can we deny it. Simply, there are no reliable data.

A Matter of Principle

Beyond the daily events in China, there is an important matter of principle. With the Second Vatican Council (or perhaps even before), the Catholic Church has accepted the modern declarations of human rights as universal and not contingent on religion and belief. With the Council’s declaration Dignitatis humanae, the Catholic Church has solemnly affirmed that religious liberty is an essential right of all human beings, based on their dignity, and independent from the content of their religious choices. Religious libertyDignitatis humanae teaches, means that every woman or man has a right to make religious choices without being harassed by the state. While the Catholic Church obviously believes that some choices are more theologically valuable than others, it demands that the states do not interfere in the process leading to such choices.

Today, human rights and religious liberty are under attack. Some Muslim, Russian, and Chinese political theorists insist that the human rights as we know them, including religious liberty, are not really “universal” but “Western” or “American.” With different arguments, they claim that they are culturally foreign, and not appropriate, for Arabs, Russians, or Chinese.

These theories are incompatible with the rationale of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, I believe, are also incompatible with Dignitatis humanae. Yet, there are (mostly right-wing) pro-Putin Catholics who believe that Putin is right when he proclaims that the West cannot impose liberal democracy and human rights to Russia, which has a different tradition. And there are (mostly left-wing) pro-CCP Catholics who insist that Xi Jinping is right and that human rights “with Chinese characteristic” are different from the human rights as conceived in the West and consecrated in the Universal Declaration, They also believe that religious liberty cannot be the same in the European Union, the United States, and China. A book including articles hinting at this theory has been published by a Vatican university with the blessing and the preface of the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

The Cardinal is right when he says that no local Catholic Church enjoys being an underground church and, no matter what the political circumstances are, Catholics prefer not to be persecuted and to operate openly. However, as it often happens, behind the political problem there is a theoretical problem. When the Catholic Church embraced the modern system of universal human rights, was it right or wrong? If it was right, it is certainly possible to keep silent for a while on certain issues in the interest of implementing an agreement with the CCP – something the Vatican seems eager to do –, but it should be clear that what is going on in China with respect to both Catholic conscientious objectors and members of many other religions that are persecuted is morally unacceptable. If we declare that the support of the Catholic Church for the universality of human rights was a mistake, based on colonialist and orientalist assumptions, then the whole building of the post-Vatican II Catholic social teaching should be dismantled.

Non-Catholics Have a Right to Religious Liberty Too

The problem is both theoretical and political. The notion of religious liberty of Dignitatis humanae has among its consequences that the old theory of libertas Ecclesiae, implying that what is important is that the Catholic Church may be free, the liberty of other religions being unimportant, is no longer acceptable Catholic teaching. The Catholic Church of Dignitatis humanae is not happy with its own freedom only, and raises its voice when any believer is persecuted, not to protect his or her theology, with which Catholics may strongly disagree, but the human dignity of those jailed, tortured, or killed for their faith. This doctrine would imply that Catholics in China, even if left alone by the CCP (which is not the case for conscientious objectors), should not be happy with this situation if house church Protestants, Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, or even members of Falun Gong or The Church of Almighty God continue to be persecuted. It doesn’t solve the problem to suggest, as some pro-CCP Catholic journalists do, that all these groups are “extremist,” “terrorist,” “American agents,” “cults,” or “commit crimes.” First, these statements are factually false. Second, if only one group that has demonstrably not committed any crime is persecuted, that shows that persecution is not motivated by the alleged crimes but by the CCP’s desire to repress all forms of independent religion.

I understand that for some Vatican bureaucrats a deal with China is historically crucial and many things can be sacrificed to achieve the aim. The question, however, is whether the Catholic Church, for the sake of this agreement, is prepared to contradict and repudiate core teachings on the universality of religious liberty and its independence from theologies and beliefs, which it had consistently maintained after Vatican II and has vigorously defended against right-wing “traditionalist” critics.

There is also another aspect of the problem. Since the great Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the Catholic Church has believed that, if only missions in China would be free, a substantial number of Chinese would convert to Catholicism. The book I quoted, which is an apology of the Vatican-China deal of 2018, admits that Catholicism in China is not in a good shape. While Protestant house churches (and, I would add, Christian new religious movements such as The Church of Almighty God) experience a phenomenal growth, the Catholic Church stagnates or loses members. Sociological theory predicts that, when a regime denies religious liberty, churches supporting the government lose members as they are perceived as being against freedom by those critical of the status quo, i.e. by the very constituency potentially most interested in religion. The risk, in China, is that a Catholic Church perceived as pro-CCP will find its Holy Grail of (limited) religious liberty for the Catholics, only to discover that the Grail is empty and that a Church friendly to an atheistic regime is simply not interesting for the majority of the Chinese seeking in a religious faith what the party-state cannot deliver.

Source: Bitter Winter