Vatican Largely Silent as China Forces Catholics to ‘Adapt to Socialist Society’

For many years, knowledgeable voices have been warning the Vatican about the dangers of Sinicization.

Catholics pray at a requiem Mass held for the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Jan. 4 in Hong Kong, China.
Catholics pray at a requiem Mass held for the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Jan. 4 in Hong Kong, China. (photo: Anthony Kwan / Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — As the Chinese Communist Party continues to enforce its Sinicization program, placing ever tighter controls on religions and co-opting them to promote Marxist doctrine, the Vatican remains largely silent publicly despite the program’s total incompatibility with the Catholic faith.

In an address on March 5 to open China’s National People’s Congress, outgoing Chinese Premier Li Keqiang boasted of how much the Sinicization of religions has been implemented, saying it has been carried out “gradually” and stressing the necessity that the CCP “actively guide religions to adapt to socialist society.”

The overall goal of Sinicization is the forcible acculturation and assimilation of Chinese communist culture into society — a program that has led to the brutal persecution of the Islamic Uyghurs in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, as well as minorities in other areas such as Tibet and Inner Mongolia.

Meanwhile, authorities in the province of Henan in north-central China, which has the highest percentage of Christians in the country, have been implementing the Sinicization program with zeal, forcing all religious followers to register to worship in churches, mosques, or Buddhist temples. 

Through a government-created phone app, believers must provide personal details such as name, telephone number, identity card details, permanent residence, occupation and date of birth, Asia News reported March 8. 

At the same time, state bodies ostensibly representing the interests of the Catholic Church and other civil society interests are merely a cover to rubber stamp such a policy, say China-watchers. 

China’s President Xi Jinping, who marked a decade as the CCP’s general secretary on March 14, continues to consolidate power in himself and the Chinese Communist Party. He also remains “fully committed to Sinicization of all civil society, especially religious groups,” said Nina Shea, senior fellow and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Hudson Institute. 

“The CCP is following the Soviets’ 1970s and 80s-era model of repression of the churches by means of surveillance, co-option, regulation and indoctrination,” Shea told the Register. “This is intended to end Catholic and other Christian belief and teaching while maintaining their public forms in order to hide its repression and to better infiltrate the Church and its teachings.” 


Sinicization Strengthened

In December 2021, President Xi said religion and religious organizations “must be actively guided to adapt to socialist society,” and those in the CCP working on religious affairs must view Sinicization of religion as their major task. “Marxist religious studies” must also be strengthened, he added, while at the same time members of religious organizations should not “interfere with social life” and education of young people. 

Furthermore, China’s communist dictator called for more surveillance and for punishing believers who use social networks for religious proselytization or criticism of the government’s religious policy. Sinicization, said Xi, means that all religious communities should be led by the Party, controlled by the Party, and support the Party.

Three months later, the CCP was even bolder about the program. In an article in the Study Times, one of its official publications, it laid out a systematic path of indoctrination on the theme “Love the Party, Love the Country, Love Socialism.” Ominously noting that some religions are incapable of being Sinicized, the article stressed that those who refuse to submit to Party control will be considered “foreign hostile forces […] plotting politically to defeat and subvert China.” Any religion that refuses to follow the party’s direction in all things will be “resolutely suppressed and eradicated,” the article stated.

“The atheistic Chinese Communist Party has a policy of wanting the death of any religion which has other sources of teaching authority,” explained Precious Blood of Hong Kong Sister Beatrice Leung, honorary research fellow at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. 

“Catholicism cannot be accepted by the party leader,” Sister Beatrice told the Register. “That is why the persecution of religion including Catholicism has been the party’s permanent policy.”

In basic terms, Sinicization of religion means “replacing the worship of God with the worship of the Communist Party of China and its leaders,” according to a report by the Population Research Institute on the controversial 2018 Sino-Vatican agreement on the appointment of bishops. “This is precisely what the Nazis attempted to do in the 1930s with its so-called Nazification program, namely, turn the Catholic and Protestant churches of Germany into ardent supporters of National Socialism and promoters of its ideology.”

The report, compiled by PRI president Steven Mosher, detailed how, for the CCP, “the state religion is China itself,” that “‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is its catechism, the members are its priesthood, and its ‘core leader’ Xi Jinping serves as its high priest.” It is the consequence of an “extremely toxic form of national narcissism,” the report said, propagandizing Chinese citizens to think they are part of the “Kingdom at the Center of the Earth,” that they “deserve dominion over the lesser folk from the fringes.”

For many years, Mosher, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, and others knowledgeable about the situation have been warning the Vatican about the dangers of Sinicization, including a major aspect that it entails: that everyone register with authorities. In 2018, the registration order began requiring that all underground bishops, priests, and laity, who are loyal to Rome rather than the CCP-run state church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, to not only register with the government, but also with the schismatic state-run church. 

Despite these serious threats to the Catholic Church and the faith, Sinicization has been effective in overcoming resistance. The program “has been a big problem,” said Sister Beatrice, “especially when the training of clergy in the modernization period in China since the 1980s has not been very solid in doctrine and spirituality.”

In terms of challenging the CCP’s indoctrination, she said “outside China we used to receive cries of resistance and requests for help, but now China controls the mass media, and every mode of communication.” Even in the National People’s Congress, the state legislature of China, she said, “the voting rate in the election of Xi as the president is 100%.”

“How can the grassroots say no to the government, when high-ranking officials dare not oppose Xi?” Sister Beatrice asked. 


The Vatican’s Response

For the Vatican’s part, it has largely been silent, or even complimentary, about Sinicization. In 2019, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, told the CCP-run English language newspaper The Global Times that Sinicization could be compared to the Catholic missionary practice of inculturation. 

“Inculturation is an essential condition for a sound proclamation of the Gospel which, in order to bear fruit, requires, on the one hand, safeguarding its authentic purity and integrity and, on the other, presenting it according to the particular experience of each people and culture,” he said. “These two terms, ‘inculturation’ and ‘sinicization,’ refer to each other without confusion and without opposition.”

Regarding registration with the communist authorities, Mosher said he warned Cardinal Parolin about the development three months after it came into effect, but according to Mosher the cardinal said the Vatican had “no objection to the requirement that everyone register with the authorities.” 

The Register asked Cardinal Parolin if he still stood by this view given the CCP’s stepping up its Sinicization program in 2021, and whether the Church can co-exist with such a policy demanding full control over the Church, but he had not responded by press time. 

Instead, the cardinal and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican secretary for relations with states, have given recent interviews in which they continue to say that Sino-Vatican relations are improving and express hope they will continue to do so over the long term. 

Cardinal Parolin told reporters March 14 that an “attitude of hope” exists between the two parties, and that the Church “only ask[s] that Catholics can be Catholics with a link to the Universal Church.” 

Archbishop Gallagher admitted to Colm Flynn of EWTN News that the 2018 agreement was “not the best deal possible” but added that Vatican officials were in talks to improve it and that there is now a “greater understanding, a greater respect between the two parties.” Last November, weeks after Vatican and Beijing renewed the agreement for a second time, China violated the pact by installing a bishop not recognized by the Holy See. 

The Vatican may be raising concerns about Sinicization to the Chinese authorities privately through various channels. Next month, Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong will visit Beijing to meet the president of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association — the first time such a visit has taken place for nearly 30 years, but few expect much to be achieved from the meeting.

“Bishop Chow’s visit to China was not initiated by himself, but by Beijing,” said Sister Beatrice. “It is the old mentality of paying homage to the emperor by the nearby small dependent state. Each Hong Kong bishop has to pay their homage to Beijing's leader since Hong Kong was taken back by China as a special administrative region [in 1997].”  


Naïve Approach?

Critics of the Holy See’s diplomatic outreach to the CCP over the past 10 years, along with its sidelining of critics of such a policy such as Cardinal Zen, see the approach as naïve and a betrayal of Catholics in China. 

When they signed, and subsequently twice renewed, the 2018 Provisional Agreement with Beijing, “Vatican diplomats seem not to have realized that they were dealing with a one-party dictatorship that was far more brutal, and far less tolerant of any expressions of religious faith, than Mexico in the 1990s or Vietnam in the 2000s,” said Mosher in the PRI report. 

Sister Beatrice believes that, if they haven’t been already, Vatican officials’ eyes will be opened to the evils of Sinicization when they eventually realize that Beijing won’t keep to the 2018 pact, and their installation of the bishop last November marked just the start of China’s overt breaches of its terms. “China turned a deaf ear to it without any public reply,” she said. “China just does what it likes in its usual dealings in foreign affairs without honoring any international order or international law.”

“The collapse of Chinese communism is the way to get freedom including religious freedom,” said Sister Beatrice, who sees signs that this may be happening. 

“Also the underground Catholic Church is still strong,” she added. “We have hope in this cohort of loyal and suffering Catholics.”