As observers and Catholics around the world have been stunned by how the Vatican, in exchange for diplomatic relations, has caved in to the Chinese regime’s demands, its state media have readily rushed to Pope Francis’s defense and dismissed criticism leveled against the deal as nothing more than the grudges of “American Catholics.” Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China, ruled by the atheistic Chinese Communist Party, shows no sign of reducing the persecution of Christians in China, including of Catholics.
It was recently reported that the Vatican under Francis forced out two Chinese Catholic bishops at underground house churches, who were ordained many years ago by the Vatican without any consideration for the Chinese regime’s approval. Last week the Vatican quickly moved to recognize the legitimacy of seven bishops imposed by the Chinese regime, who were cherry-picked to lead the regime-sanctioned churches. The Vatican had previously excommunicated these individuals.
The power to appoint bishops, known as “investiture,” is considered to be at the core of the Catholic Church’s teachings. The Vatican under all previous popes consistently rejected the Chinese regime’s demand to appoint all bishops in mainland China, a demand made so that the regime may maintain control of Catholics in China.
Due to this and other reasons, the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China have had no diplomatic relations since 1951. While various popes before Francis have attempted to restart the Vatican’s relations with China, none has crossed the line of accepting the Chinese regime depriving the Vatican of its power of investiture.
As such, Francis’s move to remove house church bishops and to recognize regime-appointed ones is seen as a stunning betrayal of Catholic traditions and the 5 million to 10 million Chinese Catholics, many of whom attend underground “house churches” instead of the regime-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association churches. The house churches and their “underground” bishops, who were legitimately ordained, have remained faithful to the Vatican and have been resisting the Chinese regime’s persecution up until now.
With the issue of the appointment of bishops seemly resolved, many now speculate that the Chinese regime could soon move to finalize a deal with the Vatican, as early as within a few months.
Some obstacles remain for Francis: Quelling internal dissent among Catholics and dealing with the public backlash that such an unprecedented compromise with the Chinese regime would incur.
The Conscience of Cardinal Zen
The public face of opposition to the Vatican’s deal with China is Joseph Zen, the respected former cardinal of Hong Kong who retired in 2009 and has become well-known in recent years as an advocate for Hong Kong’s democracy and a relentless critic of the Chinese regime.
“Am I the major obstacle in the process of reaching a deal between the Vatican and China?” wrote Zen in an open letter to the media. “If that is a bad deal, I would be more than happy to be the obstacle.”
On January 12, the 86-year old retired cardinal visited the Vatican and met with Francis on Jan. 12 to deliver a letter of appeal written by one of the forcibly retired Chinese bishops, and to ask the pope not to cave in to the Chinese regime. Accounts differ as to Francis’s reaction in the meeting. According to Zen, the pope expressed surprise upon learning the news of the changes in bishops and said that he had instructed Vatican officials not to create martyrs out of the faithful Chinese Catholics.
In a Jan. 30 press statement, however, the Vatican said that Francis is “in constant contact with his collaborators, in particular in the Secretariat of State, on Chinese issues.” Although not mentioning Zen directly, the Vatican said that critics of its China policy within the Catholic Church are “fostering confusion and controversy.”
In response, Zen wrote on his blog that the Vatican press statement implied either Vatican officials have been lying to both Francis and to the public, or that Francis has lied to him and that he has known of the Vatican officials’ plan with the Chinese regime all along and approves of what they are doing.
“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 what they are doing in recent years and months,” said Zen.
Since Francis was elected in 2013, the Vatican has made numerous overtures to the Chinese regime, such as a papal flight over China in 2014. The Epoch Times also reported last October that a senior Vatican official, Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai, who was known for strong opposition to the Chinese regime, was removed from a key post in the Vatican by Francis. Hon is known for being a close ally to Zen and is also from Hong Kong, the only Catholic diocese under the People’s Republic of China that has some guarantee of the freedom of religion.
In a video interview with the Catholic TV network EWTN, Zen said that he thought Francis, who is from Argentina, harbors “compassion” for Latin American communists and does not understand the Chinese Communist Party at all.
Zen also said that Francis displays a misguided “optimism” in dealing with the Chinese regime, which Zen said was surprising, given that Francis’s advisers, especially his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, have had years of experience negotiating on the China deal and must know that the Chinese regime is not to be trusted.
Communist State Media Rushes to Pope’s Defense
While reports of the Vatican’s surrender to the Chinese regime have been widely cited as a betrayal of the persecuted Chinese Catholics, it has at least found one supporter—the Chinese regime’s state media.
In a piece published on Feb. 6, the state-owned Global Times said that “Beijing and the Vatican will establish diplomatic relations sooner or later … Pope Francis has a positive image with the Chinese public.” The newspaper is a sister publication of the state mouthpiece People’s Daily and does not officially speak for the regime, but is noted for serving as a tabloid version of the regime’s propaganda nevertheless.
The Global Times also claimed that it is mostly “American Catholics” who are mounting a civil war within the church against Francis. It quoted Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at Villanova University, as saying that “criticism from the U.S.” against Francis is not really about China but amounts to “an instrument of the theological opposition to the rest of Francis’ pontificate.”
There is, however, little evidence to suggest that the predominantly negative media coverage and criticism of Francis’s dealing with China are motivated by a range of other disputes within Catholicism. The most vocal voices against the deal have come from Chinese Catholics in Hong Kong and elsewhere, such as Joseph Zen, and also many longtime observers of China who have been critical of the Chinese regime’s abuses of religious freedom and human rights.
This also would not be the first time Francis has been accused of kowtowing to authoritarian, anti-Western regimes often at the expense of Christians. Previously, Ukrainian Christians have criticized Francis for deemphasizing Russian aggression against their country as “fratricidal.” They suspected that Francis did so to court Russia’s Orthodox Church, which has close ties with the Kremlin.
Similarly, Francis’s open-arms approach to Cuba, as reflected in his visit to the country in 2015, has been criticized for neglecting the plight of Cuba’s pro-democracy dissidents who are still being heavily persecuted by the one-party, socialist regime. During the trip, Francis met with the then 89-year-old dictator Fidel Castro, but not with any member of the dissident community, as noted by the Washington Post.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report and the U.S. State Department’s report on international religious freedom have consistently labeled China as a serious abuser of religious freedom. Both reports have continued to document new persecutions of Christians and underground churches every year.