The Sino-Vatican Agreement—One Year Later

Underground bishops are being forced to join the Patriotic church, whose leaders are openly saying that their first loyalty is not to God but to the Party-State.

No one who follows the persecution of Catholics around the world can have missed what is currently happening in China. Despite the signing of the Sino-Vatican Agreement in September 2018, the persecution of Catholics in that country seems not only to be continuing, but to be intensifying, especially for those who refuse to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church, which remains in the eyes of the Vatican a schismatic creation under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party.

While the provisions of the agreement remain secret, it reportedly deals with bilateral relations and the ordination of bishops.  Although it does not instruct Underground bishops and priests to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), it does apparently acknowledge that Catholic clergy will be required to register with the Communist authorities — which in practice is turning out to be the same thing.  That concession seems to have been all the Communist authorities needed to begin strong-arming Underground clergy into joining the CPCA as part of the “registration” process.

The future selection of bishops is also problematic.  Chinese sources indicated that candidates will be proposed by the Communist Party for ratification by the Pope.  The Pope may veto one or two candidates, to be sure, but Communist officials have made it clear that he cannot indefinitely delay the process, nor continuously veto one candidate after another.  If this happens the official implied, Party officials will simply return to illicitly ordaining bishops.

Pope Francis claims that this process preserves his authority.  “The Pope names the bishops,” he asserted when questioned.  But whether the ability to exercise a (temporary) veto power over the process actually does preserve papal authority not only for him, but for his successors, seems open to question.

Of course, Pope Francis’ predecessors, Pope Benedict and Pope Saint John Paul II, were equally interested in an opening to China, which has the largest unevangelized mass of people on the planet.  Most Catholics in the Western World are unaware of the extensive efforts of the sainted pope to increase the Church’s influence in China.

Altogether, in his speeches and writing, Pope John Paul II referred to China at least sixty times.

As far as relations with the Chinese Party-State were concerned, Pope John Paul II wrote in 2001 that, “It is no secret that the Holy See, in the name of the whole Catholic Church and, I believe, for the benefit of the whole human family, hopes for the opening of some form of dialogue with the Authorities of the People’s Republic of China …. Once the misunderstandings of the past have been overcome, such a dialogue would make it possible for us to work together for the good of the Chinese people and for peace in the world.” 

A Catholic Church in China

This approach was remarkably successful. During the reign of Pope John Paul II, all but two of the bishops of the Communist Party-controlled CPCA secretly asked to be recognised by the Holy See as legitimate bishops.  These requests were, after an investigation of the applicant’s faith and character, honoured by the Holy Father.  In other words, the Patriotic bishops were renouncing schism and joining their brother bishops in the Universal Church. By the end of Pope John Paul’s pontificate, the break between the Underground and Patriotic churches was almost healed.

Now, driven in part by the new Sino-Vatican Agreement, the opposite is happening:  Underground bishops are being forced to join the Patriotic church, whose leaders are openly saying that their first loyalty is not to God but to the Party-State.

Cardinal McCarrick’s Role in the Sino-Vatican Agreement:
With the beginning of Pope Francis’s reign other negotiators were tapped to deal with the Chinese authorities, chief among them the disgraced ex-Cardinal McCarrick, who is now laicised and living in a retreat house.  Now that the extent of McCarrick’s corruption is widely-known — both sexual and financial — it seems incredible that he was ever placed in charge of negotiations with China, but in fact he played a leading role.  

Because of his sexual abuse of minors, Pope Benedict XVI had placed restrictions on McCarrick’s ministry and travel.  Why a notorious homosexual predator was given such a sensitive assignment, one which would affect the fate of millions of souls, is a mystery to me.  More corrupt politician than honest prelate, it is perhaps not surprising that the deal that McCarrick helped to negotiate seems to be deeply flawed.

In May 2018, I had the opportunity to sit down with Cardinal Parolin, who as the Secretary of State is generally regarded as the number two man in the Vatican.  I laid out reasons why signing any agreement with the Chinese Communist Party — notorious for having violated nearly every agreement it had signed — would be a mistake.  However, Cardinal Parolin indicated to me that the terms of the agreement had already been negotiated and, as he put it, “We are simply waiting on the Chinese side to sign the agreement.”

I did warn him about the new regulations governing religious activity which had come into effect on 1 February 2018. These called for Underground bishops and priests to submit to the Communist authorities as a condition of staying in ministry. He dismissed my concern, saying that: “We have no objection to the requirement that everyone register with the authorities.”

But this was no simple “registration.” In the hands of the Communist Party it was twisted into a requirement that all clergy join the schismatic Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and profess that their first loyalty was to the officially atheistic Party-State.  Those who refused were subject to even more intense persecution than before.  “What should we do?” Underground clergy cried out in anguish and confusion.  

The “Pastoral Guidelines”
It took nine months — and countless pleas from Underground clergy — for the Vatican to formulate a response to this violation of the Sino-Vatican Agreement.  The “Pastoral Guidelines” issued to bishops and clerics in China in June of this year, however, only added to the confusion. 

First, the Guidelines imply that the decision to register with the authorities is entirely up to the individual bishop or priest in question, but since the Vatican has already approved such registration, on what grounds is a member of the Underground clergy to object when Communist officials come calling?

Second, the Guidelines, using oddly convoluted phrasing, suggests that, “if … the text of the declaration required for the registration does not appear respectful of the Catholic faith,” a priest may sign.  But there is no “if” about it.  Such “declarations” always require joining a schismatic organization, the CPCA, and therefore are always “disrespectful of the Catholic faith.”   

Third, the Guidelines instruct a priest to “specify in writing” that he is signing the declaration “without failing in his duty to remain faithful to the principles of Catholic doctrine.” They add that, when such a written clarification “is not possible,” the priest may do so orally and “if possible” in the presence of a witness. 

As one who has been arrested in China and forced to write a “confession,” I can personally attest to the fact that there is exactly zero chance that a beleaguered priest will be allowed to either call witnesses, amend the “declaration” in any way, or even openly declare that he disagrees with its contents.  Reading such advice calls to mind a Chinese saying: “One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” 

In fact, the advice from the Vatican was so obviously unworkable that it led Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong to journey to Rome to lodge a protest with the Pope, who said that he would “look into it.” But there has been no further public word from the Vatican on this matter.

Growing Criticism of the Sino-Vatican Agreement:
In the meantime, the public criticism of the Sino-Vatican Agreement has been growing.  Even LaCroix International, a a publication that normally goes to great lengths to defend the current papacy, has published an article urging the Vatican to renegotiate the deal in light of the growing persecution of Christians and Muslim Uyghurs.  But even this doesn’t adequately address the scope of the problem.

Every day produces new evidence that the Chinese Communists are waging war on all religions.  For example, the U.S. commission in International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in its 20th Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, devoted an entire section to China.  Not only did it designate China as a “Tier 1” country — a category reserved for the worst offenders of religious freedom — it went further.  It accused China of being “in a category all by itself” in terms of both the scope and severity of its attacks on religious believers.

The state seems to see Catholics and other Christians as a particular threat, perhaps because their numbers have been growing so fast.  China’s Christians may now outnumber the 94-million-member Chinese Communist Party, so it is no surprise that Party leader Xi Jinping sees them as a threat to his continued rule. As far as the Uyghur Muslims are concerned, the Party is currently engaged in a brutal campaign of cultural genocide.  Up to three million Uyghur and Kazakh men may currently be in concentration camps in the Far West of the country, while Chinese policemen are billeted with the women and children they have left behind, a situation obviously open to abuse.  Both the Uyghur language and faith are now discouraged.   

Of course, the person most responsible for the current wave of persecution is Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping himself.  Xi’s determination to stamp out all religious sentiment in China rivals that of the late Chairman Mao, known for his vicious purges of the Fifties and Sixties.  In fact, Xi and his Politburo comrades have consciously rejected all of the building blocks of Western Civilization — democracy, the rule of law, civil society, a free press, human rights, and the free market.  All of these are, in the words of Central Committee Directive No. 9 of 2013, “threats to the continued rule of the Party.”

Most critically, they have rejected the transcendent capstone of Christianity which binds the whole of Western Civilisation together. They understand that China’s conversion to Christianity would mark the end of their brutal system of rule. This is why the persecution of the Church in China will only intensify, Sino-Vatican Agreement or no Sino-Vatican Agreement.

Cardinal Joseph Zen: A Voice Crying in the Wilderness:
Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former Archbishop of Hong Kong, believes that the Chinese government has escalated its crackdown on Catholics precisely because “the Holy See is helping the authorities of the government to do this.” While this was surely not the Vatican’s intention, the results on the ground in China speak for themselves.  Without question, many Chinese Catholics see the Agreement as a betrayal. 

The Vatican should have listened to Cardinal Zen, who earlier warned that the proposed deal with the Chinese Communists would turn out badly for the underground Chinese Catholic Church.  Zen has since described the actual agreement as a “complete surrender” and “an incredible betrayal” of Chinese Catholics. 

Not long before the agreement was signed, the Communist authorities abolished the government’s “Bureau of Religious Affairs,” and handed responsibility for controlling all religious activities to its own United Front Works Department.  As I warned Cardinal Parolin at the time, while the Vatican had earlier been negotiating with government officials, from now on they would be dealing directly with atheistic Communist Party officials.  These would be determined to stamp out Catholicism as a “foreign religion” root, stem, and branch.  Any deal with United Front officials, I told him, would not only offer no protection to Catholics in China, but would in fact result in increased persecution of the Catholic Church. 

That, sadly, is exactly what has transpired. In fact, China seems to be using the “cover” of the Sino-Vatican agreement to ramp up persecution of not only Catholics but Christians and other religions as well. The Communists have since raided or closed down hundreds of Protestant house churches, including Zion Church, Rongguili Church, and Early Rain Covenant Church.

Bishop Vincent Guo’s Martyrdom:
One prominent victim of the Sino-Vatican Agreement is Bishop Vincent Guo, who was Bishop of Mindong Diocese until Pope Francis asked him to step down in favor of a Patriotic Bishop.  Asia News reported that Pope Francis had actually asked for this “sacrifice” from Msgr. Guo the year before the signing of the Agreement in order to promote the “unity of the Church and guarantee the signing of the Agreement between China and the Holy See.”  In other words, Bishop Guo was demoted at Beijing’s request.

But although he stepped down, he refused to join the schismatic Patriotic Catholic Association as a condition of being allowed to continue his priestly ministry.  As a result, he has been relentlessly harassed, threatened, browbeaten and even has “disappeared” for short periods of time.  For most of the past year he has been under constant police surveillance, with two police officers assigned to watch him day and night. He recently managed to escape his handlers and is, of this writing, in hiding.  When asked about him, one of his flock said, “Please pray for the safety of our bishop. He is very tired.”

It is hard to say what the Vatican has gotten in return for an agreement that Cardinal Zen openly calls a “sellout” of the Underground church.  It is perhaps easier to say what it has not gotten.  It has not gotten China to consent to the ordination of the roughly 20 bishop candidates identified by the Holy See within the Patriotic church, some of whom have already been secretly ordained.  It has not gotten the Communist authorities to accept a significant number of bishops of the underground community.  In fact, of the 40 or so underground bishops, only one has to date been officially recognised by the Communists.

No one should be surprised by this outcome.  The only thing that the Vatican and the Chinese authorities seem to have in common is a belief that there should only be one Catholic church in China.  For General Secretary Xi Jinping and his minions that means eliminating the Underground church. For the Vatican it means encouraging everyone (without explicitly saying so) to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which it seems to believe offers a safe, legal haven for Catholics to practice their faith. 

But it doesn’t. The CPCA is merely an instrument that the Chinese Communist Party is using to bring all Catholics under Party control.  The ultimate goal of the atheistic Communists who run China remains the same: to destroy all religious faith within China’s borders. 

The Pastoral Guidelines state that the Holy See will continue negotiating with the CCP regarding the civil registration of bishops and priests. Bishop Guo commented that some Vatican officials have been very vocal about encouraging Chinese priests to join the CPCA, but have been very reserved when it comes to supporting underground priests as they fight to maintain their faith and principles.  All of this puts Catholic conscientious objectors in a difficult, if not impossible, position.

“If before the signing of the Agreement we remained fearless and maintained our faith no matter how much we were coerced, the Holy See would have supported us, too,” the bishop said. “But now, we’re really helpless.  To be frank, whoever persists will suffer greater suppression and persecution from the CCP.” 

The road of persecution is still very long, Bishop Guo added, and Catholics must use it to strengthen their faith. Bishop Guo is living out his words on his own long Via Dolorosa — as he tries to keep one step ahead of the Communist authorities.