By Michael Sainsbury
In the past two years, the full horror of Xi Jinping’s plans for the People’s Republic of China have crystallized, particularly for its far-flung western provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, annexed in the 1950s, and most recently Hong Kong.
Xi’s vision is of an authoritarian, technological surveillance state that spies upon and controls its population, regulating exactly what people can and can’t do for work, leisure and even in the spiritual realm.
The Vatican appears set to renew its two-year-old agreement with the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the appointment of bishops, yet it could not come at a worse time.
Even from a purely logistical point of view, the two sides have struggled to have face-to-face meetings this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and it has shown in the timing of the renewal of the deal that both sides have said they want.
It’s worth taking a step back and having a look at who — so far — has got what and whether the objectives of both sides have been achieved.
From the outset, the Vatican, having so relentlessly pursued some sort of deal over decades and through three papacies beginning with St. John Paul II, was in a weaker position by dint of being the supplicant in the relationship. Unlike his two predecessors, who balked at the last hurdle of taking a substandard deal with Beijing, Pope Francis, a Jesuit, holds the hopes of his pioneering order that sent Christendom’s first successful mission to China.
So it’s hardly surprising that Beijing scored the early wins, prime amongst them the lifting of excommunication of bishops and the imprimatur of the Holy Father on the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Indeed, it’s hard to see that it needs much else.
Beijing is clearly keen to run the clock down on some of the older bishops who are now into their ninth and tenth decades, and this makes some sense from both sides. The underlying problem is that, as in most places in the West, China’s general population is aging and its seminaries — for a range of reasons including demographics but also increased religious repression — are not producing enough priests to fill its parishes or bishops for its dioceses.
But perhaps the most important question is whether the Vatican has made any headway at all in arguably its key goal for making such a deal with a regime that actively loathes all expressions of religion: Rome’s evangelical hopes in China.
For this is the long-term narrative — the deal would pave the way for a new evangelization in the elusive Middle Kingdom. Yet it is already clear that Xi’s plan is quite the opposite — to restrict the opportunities for religion to spread in China.
If the Vatican’s original deal with Beijing slipped somewhat under the radar of mainstream global media, its renewal will most likely not get such a free pass. China’s increasingly aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy has seen a growing number of envoys remonstrate with their host nations when they don’t like cold hard truths about the Middle Kingdom being expressed.
All along, the Vatican’s line has been that its deal with Beijing is spiritual and not political. But in the PRC, where the CCP controls every aspect of life and every organization of any size, it is frankly impossible to separate anything from the political.
Authorities can dictate exactly who can attend Mass and when, and what other activities believers may or may not engage in. It is a state where basic human freedoms and rights are curtailed or even removed at the whim of a determinedly atheistic regime.
On Sept. 15, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin effectively said that things were on track for an October renewal. He also made mention of a “further period” after which the Holy See would take a look and see if it was all worthwhile.
So it’s unsurprising that the details of any renewal or recasting of the agreement are likely to remain a closely guarded secret in the true tradition of the opaque governance exercised by both parties.
With their effective absolute monarchies, elitist, undemocratic leadership groups and relentless top-down decision making, the Vatican and China have more similarities than either would probably care to contemplate.
The upcoming extension of a deal that looks less convincing by the day — especially as it has bought Pope Francis’ silence on Hong Kong and Xinjiang — will no doubt be pitched by Rome’s propagandists as a good thing for the Church. The reality, as Xi continues with his inhumane push for total control, could well be just the opposite.
Indeed, the right advice for Cardinal Parolin right now is to probably quit while you are behind. But this is now complicated by the fact that any withdrawal by the Holy See at this stage could see even greater horrors visited on China’s Catholics in retribution. The Vatican, like it or not, seems trapped — damned if it does and damned if it does not.
The question is whether Pope Francis will stay silent on China’s abuses once the deal is renewed. As the saying goes, bad things happen when good men say nothing.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.