At a time when much of the rest of the world is starting to wake up to the repression, mendacity, and dangers of the Chinese Communist Party regime, the Vatican is getting even deeper in bed with it. And at a time when that regime is intensifying repression of religion—including Catholics—in China, Pope Francis is renewing an accord with Beijing that has yielded no benefits yet save for President Xi Jinping and only disunity and suffering for the Catholic Church.
Two years ago, the Vatican signed a provisional agreement with Beijing, valid for two years. It had been a long time coming, and I and others tried to warn of the dangers before the deal was done. When it was announced, I expressed concerns—but also tried to give a pope whom I admire the benefit of the doubt.
China is already breaking the deal. Only last week in Jiangxi province, dissenting Catholic priests have been placed under house arrest, in breach of an agreement to protect clergy from coercion. Priests from Yujiang diocese, under surveillance, have been forbidden from “engaging in any religious activity in the capacity of clergy” after they refused to join the regime’s so-called “patriotic church,” and Bishop Lu Xinping was barred from celebrating Mass.
This was predictable from the start. Everything about the deal was wrong.
Firstly, the timing: in the midst of the worst crackdown on religion since the Cultural Revolution.
The text was, and remains, secret, so no one other than its negotiators and the pope know the details.
And the result was to give an atheist dictatorship a decision-making role in the appointment of bishops.
But two years ago, while I expressed my skepticism, I held out for the possibility that I was wrong and that the pope was right. I am, after all, only a 7-year-old Catholic, having been received into the church on Palm Sunday 2013 in Myanmar by Cardinal Charles Bo, and I didn’t come into the church to take on the Vatican hierarchy, let alone the pope. Indeed, I am not—other than on this issue—a critic of Francis. I love his emphasis on mercy and forgiveness, and I came into the church just 11 days after he was elected to the papacy. I have grown up as a Catholic with him and I want to support him.
Yet in the past two years, nothing has made me think that my skepticism about the deal was misplaced. On the contrary, I remain more convinced today than ever that the deal is very profoundly naïve, wrong, immoral, and dangerous. I don’t doubt the good intentions behind it, but they are deeply misplaced.
For a start, why was the release of Catholic clergy and laity in jail before the deal was signed not made—and secured—as a precondition? As it is, to my knowledge there have been no releases and yet more arrests and detentions, as the Jiangxi case shows.
Even in Hong Kong, the regime appears to have already exerted an influence over the Catholic diocese, directly or indirectly. Cardinal John Tong issued instructions to all priests to “watch your language” in homilies and avoid making politically provocative comments. The diocese has issued new instructions to Catholic schools to discourage students from participating in protests, and published religious textbooks with guidance on how Hong Kong students can “contribute to their nation” with a clear pro-Beijing slant, and it effectively banned an initiative by Catholic activists to mobilize a prayer campaign for Hong Kong. It is unclear whether the pressure for these measures came from Beijing or Rome, or out of fear in the diocese of the wrath of both.
The brazenness of the regime—tightening the screws in Jiangxi just days before the renewal of the agreement—illustrates how one-sided this deal is. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said last week that the agreement was implemented “successfully” and that the two sides “will continue to maintain close communication and consultation and improve bilateral relations.”
From Beijing’s point of view, he is right. The deal has succeeded in furthering the regime’s control of the church in China, repressing dissent, and buying the pope’s silence.
Francis—who most Sundays highlights one or another area of injustice and human rights around the world, and rightly so when he prays the Angelus—has stayed conspicuously silent on the persecution of Christians in China, the atrocities committed against the Uighurs which may well amount to a genocide, or the repression in Hong Kong or Tibet. Until now, not a word of prayer or solidarity for the repressed peoples of China has passed his lips publicly. Such is the tragic price of this worthless deal.
Ideally, I would advocate for this deal to be abandoned. And I do in principle, absolutely. But there are two reasons I don’t in practice, just yet. First, I know it will fall on deaf ears. The diplomats in the Vatican are determined, and it will be renewed. Second, we still do not know in detail what is in the agreement. It is difficult to categorically reject a text we have not yet fully seen.
So instead I say this to Rome: If it’s such a great deal—despite all the evidence to the contrary—tell us what’s in it. Come on, pleasantly surprise us! As a Catholic, I believe in miracles and I am prepared to be persuaded. But secrecy and silence are not the way.
So reveal, review, and then—if it’s as bad as the current evidence suggests—repeal the deal.
Supporters of the deal will say that the Vatican is playing a long game. But if so, it’s too long for the millions of Uighurs in prison camps, slavery, or under Orwellian surveillance; too long for the churches which are bulldozed, closed, under surveillance, or whose crosses are torn down and priests jailed; too long for prisoners of conscience whose organs are harvested; too long for Hong Kong, whose freedoms are being rapidly dismantled. Compromise for short-term gain may be defensible; total sell-out for no gain at all and an undermining of the church’s moral authority is not.
The Chinese Communist Party knows how to make use of what Lenin described as “useful idiots.” Mao was adept at using “fellow travellers.” When you have Vatican officials extolling the virtues of Chinese communism, as the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, did when he described it as the best example of Catholic Social Teaching, it is evident that the Vatican has provided Beijing with both useful idiots and fellow travellers.
I will always genuflect at an altar in a Catholic Church. What I won’t do—and I don’t think any Catholic should do—is kowtow to a brutal, repressive, tyrannical regime. I don’t think the pope should be made to do so either.