More Reasons to Question the Holy See’s Accord with China

Despite the brutal reality of life on the ground in China, Rome’s serenity remains undisturbed.

Chinese President Xi Jinping stands next to a bust of Caesar Augustus as he addresses a forum of businessmen on March 22, 2019, at the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome, as part of a two-day visit to Italy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping stands next to a bust of Caesar Augustus as he addresses a forum of businessmen on March 22, 2019, at the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome, as part of a two-day visit to Italy. (photo: Photo by Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)

Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the Vatican diplomat who helped secure the September 2018 provisional accord between the Holy See and China that formalized rules for appointing bishops, was asked yesterday if he had second thoughts about the controversial deal.

The question posed by AP reporter Nicole Winfield was well-timed: China’s latest clampdown on human rights has provoked condemnation of President Xi Jinping’s totalitarian policies. And this flood of outrage raises an uncomfortable question for Pope Francis and Vatican diplomats: Why should they trust the word of a regime that routinely violates basic human rights and civil liberties?

On Monday, Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and a Catholic, told the Washington Times that he spoke out “against state-sponsored religious persecution carried out by China’s ruling Communist Party.” During a recent trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong, Brownback warned that Beijing would employ new surveillance technology, like enhanced facial recognition, to target perceived opponents of the regime.

Meanwhile, a March 24 Washington Post editorial echoed Brownback’s criticism of Beijing’s system of internment camps in northwest Xinjiang province—camps designed to control and reeducate ethnic Uighur Muslims.

“A sizable body of evidence, including statements from those who managed to flee, suggests the 1 million or more detainees [in the concentration camps]  are not free in any sense and are paying a dear price,” read the Washington Post editorial.

“By these accounts, the camps are a brazen attempt by China to commit cultural genocide against the Turkic Muslim minority in the region, including ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and others, stamping them into the mold of the majority Han Chinese.”

The editorial quoted a recent State Department report that documented the use of torture at the camps, including “electrocution, waterboarding, beatings, stress positions, injection of unknown substances, and cold cells.”

Likewise, Brownback and human rights groups have raised concerns about the Chinese government’s evolving plans for a “social credit” system, which would reward citizens, businesses and other groups — including, no doubt, religious institutions — for their compliance with established Communist Party goals, like “adherence to law and… the government’s ideological framework.”

Those accused of violating these goals could face serious penalties, including restrictions on employment, travel and access to government benefits.

These developments may have sparked widespread criticism of China’s crackdown on civil liberties, but it is not yet clear whether they have disturbed the serenity of the Holy See.

Last week, when Xi visited Italy for a state visit, the Holy See signaled its openness to a last-minute meeting between the Chinese president and Pope Francis.

“Our door is always open,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, told reporters.

The meeting didn’t happen. And this week Archbishop Celli gave no evidence of any particular anxiety regarding China’s policies. Indeed, he told AP’s Winfield that he wasn’t disturbed by claims that the Vatican, in its rush to secure a landmark deal with Beijing, had left China’s underground Christians to fend for themselves.

Instead, the archbishop sought to present any lingering questions about the accord as grist for more “dialogue.”

“This provisional agreement is not just a point of arrival, but a point of departure for a more concrete and fruitful dialogue for both sides,” he told Winfield.

And he insisted that the Holy See’s accord with China had only “increased mutual trust” between Rome and Beijing.

“The path of normalizing the life of the Church is still long,” he added.

Archbishop Celli said that he first began to work on a Vatican-China accord in the 1980s, and witnessed firsthand the suffering of Catholics in both the underground church and Communist Party-controlled Patriotic Church.

“Some would say I’m too optimistic,” he admitted.

“I’ve never had illusions. But hope? Yes. I’m willing to welcome the surprise of the Lord, even in China.”

No “illusions?” “Too optimistic?”

Critics of the Vatican accord, like Cardinal Zen, would surely point to the latest news from China and conclude that Rome’s eager overtures to Beijing defy the brutal reality of life on the ground in China.