Pope Francis should see the writing on the wall and revise the Holy See’s China policy. There is no hiding that its five-year-old agreement with Beijing has served Chinese Communist Party interests, to the detriment of the Vatican’s and those of Chinese Catholics. The pope’s recent decision to elevate Hong Kong’s Bishop Stephen Chow to the College of Cardinals provides an opportunity for a new approach.
A “good bishop,” Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen called him when meeting with the pope in January. A Jesuit, like Francis, Chow could serve as a key papal China-policy adviser. The pope could benefit from frank, on-the-ground accounts by someone he trusts. There will be opportunities for that in late August, when both are in Mongolia for the papal visit, and then in September, at the consistory for new cardinals in Rome.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state of the Holy See, gave Beijing a role in appointing China’s bishops, gambling that the 2018 deal with China would overcome state obstruction that has left vacant some 30 episcopal seats, 30 percent of China’s dioceses. Instead, the CCP has used that role as a golden opportunity to advance “Sinicization,” a policy announced by Xi Jinping and rolled out that same year. Under Sinicization, religions are forced to adapt to Chinese communist ideology.
Beijing lost no time in compelling mainland bishops to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Unapproved by the Vatican and founded under Mao Zedong to oversee and “reeducate” mainland clergy, it now is directly controlled by the party’s propaganda arm, the United Front Work Department. The association requires a pledge of “independence, autonomy, and self-administration.” This suggests the outright rejection of papal authority and was declared “incompatible with Catholic doctrine” by Pope Benedict XVI in a letter to China’s Catholics in 2007. Nevertheless, in 2019, the Holy See issued pastoral guidelines permitting clergy to take the pledge. Citing China’s hollow constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, the guidelines give the strained interpretation that agreement language on the “independence” of the church in China means not that the church is independent of the pope but only that foreign influence in the “political sphere” is forbidden.
Surveillance technology in churches is linked to an AI system of rewards and punishments, helping the Patriotic Association to ensure compliance with Sinicization. Bishops and clergy must “spread CCP principles,” “implement” its “values,” and declare “love” for the party. They must keep minors out of their churches and otherwise restrict religious practice. They must avoid teachings on mercy, forgiveness, and anything else inconsistent with regime ideology. And yet Cardinal Parolin maintains, implausibly, that Sinicization is simply inculturation, the missionary practice of adopting local etiquette and art and integrating them into Catholic culture.
By October 2022, the Vatican assessment was that the agreement worked and had resulted in the Catholic Church in China being “in communion with the Successor of St. Peter.” Achievements of the agreement were said to include six underground bishops newly registered with the association and six episcopal appointments approved by both parties. Unmentioned were 17 bishops who, for resisting the association, have been detained without due process, are closely guarded, or have disappeared, according to the mission news outlet Asia News. Six cases have arisen since the agreement: Bishop Joseph Zhang of Henan, Bishop Melchior Shi of Tianjin, Bishops Augustine Cui and Julius Jia of Hebei, and Bishops Peter Shao and Vincent Guo of Zhejiang.
Cardinal Parolin argues that the agreement is focused on basic principles, not human-rights concerns. In an interview with Francis last year, Reuters related Vatican confidence that “both sides now recognise the pope as supreme leader of the Catholic Church” and that the accord “gives the pope the final say” in appointing bishops. Whatever Beijing stipulated in the agreement (its terms are secret), Xi clearly does not respect authority outside the CCP. Proving the point, Beijing in April unilaterally appointed a bishop to Shanghai and last November, without papal approval, transferred a bishop to a diocese it created. The Vatican response was a mild letter of “regret” for the November event and, for the one in April, an ex post facto approval.
To shore up its partnership, the Vatican invites China to prestigious conferences, particularly those of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. According to China’s press, at one such conference in 2017, “on behalf of China,” Dr. Huang Jiefu, long with the CCP’s Central Committee, proposed that the World Health Organization create an organ-trafficking advisory group. In 2019, the Vatican facilitated its creation and Huang’s appointment to it. That year, a peer-reviewed article in a medical-ethics journal concluded that China’s voluntary organ-donor database, which Huang directed, was “falsified” as a result of being “manufactured and manipulated from the central levels of the Chinese medical bureaucracy.” The authors concluded that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences “provided endorsements” of China’s “reforms” of forced organ-harvesting “based on what appears to be contaminated data.” The Vatican never acknowledged that it was used, however unwittingly, in the CCP’s global deception campaign — even after the prestigious International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation, in 2022, adopted a rule prohibiting joint projects with China, with the shocking finding about “the body of evidence that the government of the People’s Republic of China stands alone in continuing to systematically support the procurement of organs or tissue from executed prisoners.” Instead, the Vatican invited China to another Academy of Sciences conference this June.
Last April, Bishop Chow moved into a pivotal position, as the first Hong Kong bishop in three decades to visit Beijing, invited there by Beijing’s Bishop Joseph Li, the president of the Patriotic Association. Claiming to be only a “diocesan bridge” in Beijing, Chow nonetheless discussed the agreement, and his participation in future talks with Beijing seems assured, given the association’s demonstrable intent to control his diocese. (His priests have reportedly been summoned to meet with the association this fall.)
Yet Chow, without leadership authority, continues to echo unfounded Vatican assurances that Xi “has much respect” for Pope Francis. Recently, he uncritically related CCP propaganda that Francis’s “love for humanity” “coincides” with the values in Xi’s “Community of Common Destiny” (a policy to replace the liberal world order of sovereignty, freedom, and nonaggression).
China’s religions face the worst repression since Mao. The Parolin policy of covering up this fact and quietly ceding papal authority to Caesar will not preserve the Catholic Church in China. Francis and Chow, the pope and the cardinal-elect, should use their upcoming meetings to set a new course.