Alternate headline: You knew durn well I was a snake before you took me in. The months-long diplomatic effort by the Vatican to reach an accommodation with China over the appointment of bishops and freedom to practice the Catholic faith has apparently run aground. Pope Francis had hoped to find an agreement that would at least give the Holy See some influence over its leaders in China, but momentum has stalled, the Wall Street Journal’s Francis X Rocca and Eva Dou now report:
A landmark agreement aimed at healing a nearly 70-year rift between Beijing and the Vatican is in limbo as the Chinese government tightens control over religion. …
The deal’s prospects have been complicated by China’s crackdown on religious institutions and activities, which began with the implementation of strict new regulations in February. President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party are promoting Marxism and “socialist” values as a state-approved system of belief.
Local officials across the country have toed the line by shutting down unregistered churches and Sunday schools for children, taking down crosses and restricting other practices that are technically illegal in China but generally tolerated, despite periodic crackdowns.
This crackdown hasn’t been that recent, although it does appear to be accelerating. China’s communists spent 70-plus years trying to suppress religious thought already, the issue that the Vatican hopes to end with an agreement. But even last fall before the efforts of the Vatican went public, Beijing began “encouraging” the poor to replace religious imagery in their homes with the beneficent smiling face of Xi Jinping — and threatening to withhold food if they didn’t. Xi is a jealous god, apparently:
The message from officials said the Christians involved had “recognized their mistakes and decided not to entrust to Jesus but to the (Communist) Party” claiming the Christians voluntarily removed 624 religious images and posted 453 portraits of Xi.
The officials also claimed they were “converting” Christians to party loyalty through poverty alleviation and other schemes to help the disadvantaged. Nearly 10 percent of Yugan County’s largely impoverished 1 million people is Christian.
Since the Vatican went public with its efforts to find a rapprochement with Beijing, it has only grown worse. The Vatican has offered bon mots to China’s leadership, such as when the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, proclaimed that no one exemplifies true Catholic social justice more than the regime which still forces women into abortions. In response to that cheerleading, Beijing cracked down on the sales of Bibles and asserted that the purpose of religion was to teach people to “be subordinate to and serve the overall interests of the nation and the Chinese people,” and “to support the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system.”
Salvation comes not from Christ, in other words; it comes from the latest five-year plan and the wit of Xi Jinping. And yet, until now, the Vatican still considered surrendering on the authority to appoint bishops as a means to alleviate some of the oppression on the underground Catholic Church in China:
The Vatican had hoped to clear the biggest hurdle to the deal—intended to bring together China’s state-backed and unauthorized Catholic communities—at a meeting this month, people familiar with the talks said, but it has yet to be scheduled.
At that meeting, the people said, Vatican officials had planned to accede to China’s main precondition for a deal: the formal recognition of seven excommunicated Chinese bishops appointed by the government without the approval of the pope. That would clear the way for Beijing to give Pope Francis the right to veto its future bishop candidates.
The Vatican’s belated recognition of the terms of this surrender comes just in time. The Diplomat noted a few days ago that China planned to use this recognition of Beijing’s authority to twist more arms than just the Catholics:
Other faiths also should take note of these developments as the structure of an agreement may serve as a benchmark for future potential ecclesiastical accords. This could be particularly problematic for organizations such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (“LDS Church” or informally “Mormons”), which is not one of the five recognized religions in China. The LDS Church has “developed [a] relationship of trust with Chinese officials,” and, like some other religious groups, has adopted a long-term perspective for operating in China. In March 2013, the LDS Church launched a website for Chinese nationals who have joined the church while residing outside China. While it does not have missionaries operating in China, missionaries do serve in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In early April, the LDS Church announced the appointment of its first ethnic Chinese apostle, Gerrit W. Gong.
As is the case with many other foreign religious groups, the LDS Church strictly tailors its activities in China to ensure alignment with Chinese laws and regulations. For example, foreign passport holders may not jointly attend church meetings with Chinese nationals. The hope is that eventually Beijing will come around to allowing religious organizations to expand their activities in the country. However, allowing Beijing to select LDS church leaders in the country would be anathema to LDS doctrine. A China-Vatican agreement on the appointment of bishops as currently laid out might set such a precedent, likely hindering future efforts by the LDS church, among others, in China.
Conducting negotiations behind the scenes provides China increased leverage in any negotiation with the Vatican. Therefore, the Holy See could consider a collective approach with other faith-based organizations or at least consult them on its negotiations with Beijing to advance shared interests in deepening ties to their respective followers in China. While this approach might very well slow or even halt negotiations, it would shed light on where Beijing’s interests truly lie and whether a deal is even worth pursuing.
It’s worth pursuing pressure on China to end persecution of religious believers. There is no doubt that the Vatican’s motivation in seeking these talks is laudable, hoping to improve the lives of Catholics trapped in the current status quo of having to decide whether to be faithful to Christ or faithful to Xi. However, allowing Beijing to muddy that distinction and push Catholics toward a cult of personality and away from Christ does them no favors in the long run. China has made its purpose to the contrary very plain. The Vatican’s decision to put aside these talks may be belated, but it’s at least a step in the right direction of confronting evil rather than attempting to compromise with it.