Praise of China’s Adherence to Catholic Social Doctrine Flies in the Face of Facts

COMMENTARY: The chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Science’s astonishing comments could be dismissed if they were not so damaging.

Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the Vatican.
Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the Vatican. (photo: 2014 AP photo/Domenico Stinellis)

“Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese,” stated Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He had just returned from a trip to China.

In an interview published in the Feb. 2 Spanish edition of Vatican Insider, he extolled the Chinese government, stating: “I found an extraordinary China; what people do not know is that the central Chinese principle is ‘work, work, work.’ As Paul said: ‘He who does not work does not eat.’ You do not have shantytowns ...”

The bishop went on to say that “China has defended the dignity of the human person.” In the area of the environment and climate change, China is “assuming a moral leadership that others have abandoned.  ... China has evolved very well.”

Bishop Sorondo’s astonishing comments could be dismissed if they were not so damaging. Because they have caused widespread confusion and consternation, they require a response.

In stating that China is “the best at implementing the social doctrine of the Church,” has the bishop somehow forgotten that the social doctrine of the Church is founded upon belief in God? In contrast, the Chinese Communist Party is officially atheistic. It persecutes believers of all religions, including Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic.

In just the past couple of months, the Chinese government has demolished both Catholic and Protestant churches. It has torn down crosses, leaving “decapitated” churches in conformance with President Xi Jinping’s edict that all religions must be “Chinese without foreign influence.”

According to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China report, more than 2,000 crosses have now been torn down. In 2016, a pastor’s wife was buried alive taking a stand against bulldozers demolishing her church. God only knows how many Christians, including Catholics loyal to Rome, are suffering incarceration, forced labor and torture for their faith at this moment.

At a high-level conference on religion held in 2016, President Xi stated that all religious groups must “merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture, [as well as] abide by Chinese laws and regulations.” These laws and regulations restrict times and places of worship, the kind of literature that can be distributed, and whether minors can receive religious instruction.

In Zhejiang Province, it is reported that authorities have compelled all churches, including Catholic churches, “to install surveillance cameras for the purported purpose of “strengthening anti-terrorism efforts.” How does regarding Christian churches as potential terrorist cells conform to Catholic social doctrine?

Also absent from Bishop Sorondo’s comments is the current controversy over the fact that the Vatican has asked two legitimate bishops to step aside to make way for two “patriotic” bishops, hand-picked by the Chinese government. Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, has questioned whether Vatican officials making these decisions “know what true suffering is.”

Because it is officially atheistic, the Chinese Communist Party does not believe in God-given “inalienable rights.” Rather, it places itself as the ultimate power, with the authority to confer or dispense with human rights as it sees fit.

Contrary to Bishop Sorondo’s assessment, therefore, China has not “defended the dignity of the human person,” one of the primary social doctrines of the Church. The Chinese government has boasted of “preventing” 400 million lives through its one-child policy. In so doing, women have been forcibly aborted up to the ninth month of pregnancy. Some of these forced abortions have been so violent that the woman died, along with her full-term baby.

China has also sterilized hundreds of millions of women. Some of these forced sterilizations have butchered the women, destroying not only their reproductive health, but their overall health, as well. Gendercide, the sex-selective abortion of baby girls, remains in China. 

It is a matter of public record that China’s human-rights record has not “evolved very well,” but in fact has deteriorated.

According to the heavily documented 2017 report of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, under the two-child policy that in 2016 replaced the one-child policy, “officials continue to enforce compliance with population-planning targets using methods including heavy fines, job termination, arbitrary detention and coerced abortion.”

Because of the one-child policy, there is not enough of a young population to support the elderly. Many elderly are left destitute, and elder suicide in China is on the rise. And the 2017 death from liver cancer of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who was serving an 11-year prison sentence for his pro-democracy efforts and was denied repeated requests to seek medical attention abroad, highlights the shameful treatment of political prisoners in China.

How is any of this consistent with respecting “life and the dignity of the human person” — a doctrine absolutely central to Catholic social teaching?

In brief response to several of Bishop Sorondo’s other statements:  

  • Regarding the bishop’s lauding of the “work, work, work” ethic in China, does he not know of the appalling system of forced labor in China, providing the world with artificially inexpensive products?
  • Regarding the bishop’s statements that there are “no shantytowns,” is he not aware that, in 2014, more than 82 million Chinese were living on less than $1 a day? Is he aware of the intense suffering caused by grinding poverty in rural areas, where parents often have to leave their children in order to make money in another city?
  • Regarding the bishop’s statement that China is “assuming a moral leadership” in the area of environmentalism, is he uninformed that China’s air pollution has at times reached levels at which planes cannot land? Does he know that lung cancer is on the rise and that China’s air pollution is so bad that 29% of San Francisco’s pollution is estimated to come from China? It has similar problems with toxic water and soil.

Bishop Sorondo’s trip to China was no doubt tightly controlled and highly choreographed. His hosts likely did not inform him of any of the information outlined above. It is baffling, however, that the bishop would have taken this highly deceitful regime at its word, and then unwittingly served as a powerful mouthpiece to transmit their propaganda to the world.

Bishop Sorondo’s highly publicized praise of the Chinese government as the epitome of Catholic social teaching in action is a betrayal of faithful Chinese Catholics who are suffering severe persecution for their loyalty to Rome. His remarks can be used as a smoke screen by the Chinese government to cover those who are being crushed beneath the fist of this brutal, totalitarian regime. As a senior Vatican official, his comments are causing the Catholic Church to lose credibility.

According to Cardinal Joseph Zen, capitulation to the ever-increasing demands of the Chinese Communist Party only makes them clamp down harder on faithful Catholics. Regarding the attempt “to find mutual ground to bridge the decades-long divide between the Vatican and China,” Cardinal Zen asks, “But can there be anything really ‘mutual’ with a totalitarian regime?”

Appeasement diplomacy has never worked with China’s repressive regime. It will only serve as a smoke screen, beneath the cover of which they can continue and escalate their human-rights abuses. We would do better to obey the wise biblical command in Ephesians 5:11: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but, rather, expose them.”

Reggie Littlejohn is the founder and president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers. She is an internationally acclaimed authority on coercive population control in China.