China Analysts Say Vatican’s Agreement With the Chinese Communist Party Ignores Negative Realities

Pope Francis and his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, support the deal’s renewal despite the absence of tangible benefits for the local faithful.

Pope Francis waves at pilgrims from China at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on September 7, 2016.
Pope Francis waves at pilgrims from China at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on September 7, 2016. (photo: Daniel ibanez/CNA / Vatican Media )

VATICAN CITY — As the Holy See prepares to renew its provisional agreement with the People’s Republic of China, recent remarks by Pope Francis and his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, have been criticized by China-watchers and experts as naïve and out of touch with the reality facing Catholics in China and Hong Kong.

The Pope told reporters on his way back from Kazakhstan last week that the Vatican’s bilateral dialogue with China’s communist government was “going well” but “slowly because the Chinese pace is slow, they have an eternity to move forward,” and because they are a people of “infinite patience.” The Pope also said he “didn’t feel like” characterizing China as “antidemocratic because it is such a complex country, with its own rhythms.”

The Holy Father discussed the case of 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, who was put on trial this week in Hong Kong, accused with others of failing to register a pro-democracy support fund. The Pope ambiguously commented that Cardinal Zen “says what he feels, and you can see there are limitations there.” And the Holy Father notably failed to offered any words of encouragement or empathy for the cardinal, who has pleaded not guilty, and stressed that he himself tries to “support the path of dialogue.”

The Pope appealed to the faithful not to “lose patience,” adding that much patience is needed “but we must go with dialogue.”

China experts and others expressed bewilderment over the Pope’s remarks. On his comment that China moves slowly and his call for patience, Benedict Rogers, the founder of Hong Kong Watch, a charity promoting human rights, freedoms and the rule of law in the China-administered territory, pointed out that the Chinese Communist Party “can move fast when it wishes to.”

“The speed and intensity of the genocide of the Uyghurs, and the crackdown in Hong Kong, show that it can act remarkably quickly when it decides on a particular course of action,” said Rogers, who was himself barred from entering the country in 2017 on account of his human rights work.

The British Catholic peer Lord David Alton interpreted the appeal for patience as “appeasement” and recalled the consequences of such an approach in the lead up to the Second World War and the post-war Vatican policy towards Soviet Communism of Ostpolitik.

We know to what appalling consequences appeasement led,” he said.

The vice chairman of the U.K.’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Uyghurs is also incensed by the Vatican’s silence in the face of the CCP’s oppression of the Uyghurs, a dialogue-driven approach that Lord Alton called “beyond belief.”

A Hong Kong priest, speaking to the Register on condition of anonymity due to the CCP restrictions on free speech there, said the CCP “is not patient; rather it is cunning.” The Vatican, he stressed, is not dealing with the Chinese, but rather the same CCP that “destroyed Chinese culture in the Cultural Revolution, that has the Soviet ideology.”

“Holy Father,” the priest pleaded, “please don’t confuse Chinese with the CCP.”

Cardinal Parolin: ‘Good Faith’

The Pope’s comments followed those of Cardinal Parolin, who told Italian television Sept. 2 of the importance of recognizing the “good faith” of the Chinese Communist Party when it comes to negotiations.

Speaking in the context of the Vatican’s controversial and secret provisional agreement with China signed in September 2018, renewed in 2020 and up for renewal again this month, he said: “When you negotiate with someone, you must always start from recognizing their good faith. Otherwise, the negotiation makes no sense.”

Cardinal Parolin, who has led Holy See-Beijing talks for many years, has also long echoed the Pope’s appeal for patience, believing that the agreement will yield positive results in time.

The Vatican has hoped that by signing the pact the “status quothat existed before 2018, of a local Catholic flock divided between an “underground” Church that is faithful to Rome and an official government-controlled entity, would be overcome and a solution found to fill many dioceses left without bishops because of this division. The secret agreement is thought to give more powers to the Chinese authorities to appoint new bishops, and the Pope is believed to be able to veto their choices, though not unlimitedly.

But Rogers said he found Cardinal Parolin’s talk of “good faith” on the part of the CCP “very difficult to understand” when Beijing has “flagrantly broken” treaties, stands accused of genocide and other atrocious crimes, and has a “built-in ideological hatred of religion and a decades-long record of religious persecution.”

“To assume there is any good faith to be recognized is extraordinarily naïve,” he said. “This is a regime that has proven time and time again that its word cannot be trusted, that agreements are not worth the paper they are written on, that it rules through both fear, repression, lies and propaganda. It is a brutal, criminal, and dishonest regime.”

“Ask Cardinal Zen, ask Archbishop Cui Tai, jailed intermittently since 2007, ask the 23 million besieged people of Taiwan, ask the Uyghurs of Xinjiang or the people of Hong Kong about the Parolin doctrine of CCP ‘good faith’ and I think they would tell you all you need to know,” said Lord Alton.

Few Episcopal Appointments

Pope Francis has said he hopes the agreement will be renewed this month, but critics say little or no good fruit has emerged since it was signed four years ago. Only four episcopal appointments have been made during this period with Rome and Beijing’s agreement, the last being more than a year ago. Today 36 dioceses remain without bishops out of a total of 98, and Beijing has redrawn boundaries without the consent of the Holy See, according to the Vaticanist Sandro Magister.

Many of these newly appointed bishops also have close ties with the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the state-run church. “What’s the point of filling every diocese with bishops if these bishops act against divine law and canon law,” said the Hong Kong priest, referencing Bishop An Shuxin of the Diocese of Baoding who reportedly called on all clergy to register with the “patriotic” church and ordered the denial of the sacraments from local Catholics who refused to accept clergy who have registered. The bishop cited the 2018 Provisional Agreement, the Vatican’s subsequent June 2019 pastoral guidelines addressing the registration issue, and other pontifical statements as justification for his actions, AsiaNews reported.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong priest pointed out, the underground bishop of the same diocese, Bishop James Su, has been imprisoned for over 25 years and the Vatican has been totally silent about his arrest.

Father Bernardo Cervellera, a priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions who served for 18 years as editor-in-chief of AsiaNews, said he believed Cardinal Parolin’s words about “good faith” were “just a kind of political move in the hope that China can commit itself more in the dialogue with the Holy See.” What the Pope and Cardinal Parolin say is “more an invitation to China to commit itself to the dialogue,” he told the Register, adding that the Vatican leaders are really saying is that they themselves "have ‘good faith’ and ‘hope.’”

The Register asked Cardinal Parolin what good fruits have come from the Provisional Agreement, whether it will be made public, on what basis can the Holy See recognize the good faith of the CCP, whether the Vatican would be offering any tangible support for Cardinal Zen, and if dialogue is also aimed at securing a papal trip to Beijing, but he had not responded by press time.

‘Very Small Improvements’

Father Cervellera noted some “very small improvements” since the agreement was signed in 2018, but he said they have been “much fewer than desired.” These include a channel of communication between the Holy See and China, albeit “very thin, quite ambiguous” and “not very fruitful.”

Observers have noted that although unity between the underground Church and the patriotic association exists in a “formal way” as no more excommunications have occurred on account of bishops being appointed without Rome’s permission, the relationship between the two communities has worsened because of administrative measures imposed by the Chinese authorities on clergy — and co-opting the provisional agreement to legitimize such action.

The restrictions include banning priests from pastoral work unless they sign a submission to the Communist Party and a religious policy that includes control of every activity, no evangelization of youth before 18 years old, and no pastoral work allowed outside parish borders. The measures, China-watchers say, have compelled many underground priests to leave their churches and find another job for a living, so the two communities are, in fact, more divided than before.

“The point is that in all these four years China has not moved on,” Father Cervellera told the Register. “They should have discussed the situation of the underground bishops, the power of the Patriotic Association on the Catholics, the mission of the Church in the Chinese society. But nothing has happened. Not even meetings, not even virtual meetings.

“At a certain point, ‘good faith’ must be verified with the results,” Father Cervellera added, but if the Vatican ever says no to this tenuous relationship, “from a political point of view it means that [this process] has failed.”

Poorly Informed?

Regarding the Pope’s assertion that relations with the CCP were “going well,” sources contacted by the Register noted that China’s President Xi Jinping has twice rejected Pope Francis’ efforts to meet — in Kazakhstan on Sept. 14 when both he and Francis were in the country’s capital, and in 2019, when Xi was visiting Rome.

“This shows that Beijing has little interest in working constructively with the Holy See on anything substantial,” Rogers told the Register. “The CCP is only interested in achieving its goal of marginalizing and controlling the Church and side-lining, undermining and effectively silencing the Pope.”

Rogers, like many other Catholic observers of China, sees the situation only worsening. “Under Xi Jinping’s regime over the past decade, religious freedom has come under the most intense assault since the Cultural Revolution,” he said. “”It is very hard to see what the Church has gained from this agreement; on the contrary, the agreement has done a lot of damage to unity and trust.”

What largely lies behind all of these headaches for the Holy See, observers say, is that Vatican officials and the Pope are poorly informed and not paying adequate attention.

“The real problem is that the Secretary of State does not listen to the people who live in China,” said Father Cervellera. It is a view echoed by the Hong Kong priest who pointed out that during Benedict XVI’s pontificate, there was a Chinese commission in the Vatican, consisting of a Chinese cardinal, bishops, and priests who would give advice to the Pope but it “has stopped meeting under this pontificate.” Figures such as Cardinal Zen and Archbishop Savio Hon, former secretary of Propaganda Fidei “are no longer listened to,” he said.

Cardinal Zen’s Trial

As for Cardinal Zen’s situation, Father Cervellera noted he was first accused of colluding with foreign forces, an accusation that can lead to a life sentence, but perhaps because of a global media outcry, the authorities then reduced the accusation to failure to register an association, something that appears not to be compulsory.

“The cardinal has declared himself not guilty, however he will be on trial,” Father Cervellera said. “Many in Hong Kong don’t think Cardinal Zen will go to prison,” he said, but added that given the way the security police have handled the case, “it is very important to show and express our solidarity with Cardinal Zen at any cost.”

Sources in Hong Kong said the police have still reserved the right to prosecute him with the second charge related to the National Security Law for colluding with foreign power that could lead to imprisonment if found guilty. But it is unlikely that would happen as the CCP would not want him to die in prison as a martyr, the same reason the CCP released Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, who also defied the CCP, in the late 1980s.

“I think most likely the trial would drag on for a number of years, and Zen may not even be convicted before he receives his Heavenly reward,” said the Hong Kong priest, who predicted the Vatican “won’t do anything,” given the Pope’s remarks returning from Kazakhstan.

Lord Alton said he agreed with Cardinal Gerhard Müller that “political reasons” have led to the Vatican’s limited comment about the trial because it “does not serve the interests of the Holy See.”

But, Lord Alton added, “Nor does it serve the interests of the up to 50 million Chinese Christians who have suffered persecution including the ‘increasing persecution’ of Catholics since 2018 noted by the U.S, Commission of Inquiry on China.”

“The situation of all religious minorities, and the daily breach by the CCP of Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, setting out the right to believe, not to believe, or to change belief, requires voices to be raised,” Lord Alton said.

“Those who would be silent,” he said, “should remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s admonition that ‘not to speak is to speak. Not to act, is to act.’”