The Vatican and Agreement with China: A Disaster for Persecuted Christians?

30 May 2023

3.9 MINS

China cannot be trusted to fulfill its part of the bargain.

How should the Vatican respond to the persecution of religious followers, including Catholics, by the Chinese Communist Party?

In a recent article in MercatorNet, Michael Cook, having recognised the ongoing persecution of millions of believers, suggests that the accommodation the Vatican has reached in a secret agreement with the CCP, is a reasonable response.

He cites the concordat that Pius VII reached with Napoleon in 1801 as a precedent. The result of it, he admits, were mixed.

“Napoleon treated the Pope and the Church with contempt. The Church was far from free. And faithful bishops paid a heavy price. But the Catholic faithful were allowed to breathe – they could pray in their churches and receive the sacraments. And after the collapse of Napoleon, despite increasingly militant secular governments, the Church flourished spiritually and intellectually in 19th century France.”

“The Pope and his diplomats seem to be playing the long game, as they have since the days of the Roman emperors. The Church’s humiliating compromises with tyrants may be darkened by bullying and injustice, but as long as Catholics can breathe, it may be worthwhile dealing with the devil. In the long run, the Church usually wins.”

I respectfully disagree. The history of concordats and the practice of Ostpolitik (a doctrine of accommodation with totalitarian regimes) has been disastrous for the Church and for millions of the faithful.

Vatican Accommodation to Communism

Following the loss of the Papal States in 1870, a belief developed among leading figures in the Vatican that the Church’s position in the world would be enhanced by concordats with various nations in which adherence to the Code of Canon Law would protect and enhance the role of the Church. The most enthusiastic proponent of this doctrine was Eugenio Pacelli, a Vatican Nuncio to Germany, Secretary of State and subsequently Pius XII, who believed these agreements gave Catholics a platform to resist persecution.

However, the track record of concordats has not been good. An agreement with Serbia in 1914 was a disaster, and many others, including agreements with Mussolini and Hitler, were honoured in their breach.

The experience of the Church in Hungary in the 1950s is the most obvious example of the failure of the policy of Ostpolitik. Far from giving Catholics “breathing space”, it consigned the Church to being an arm of the Communist Party. The leader of the Church, Cardinal József Mindszenty was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to life imprisonment at a show trial. He was later freed and exiled.

The Church in Czechoslovakia and Poland also suffered greatly, despite the heroic efforts of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński and others.

There is another more ethical and successful approach to totalitarian regimes. It was practiced by Pope John Paul II, who had experienced the ravages of Communism in his homeland, and had learnt from Wyszyński and others that authoritarians cannot be appeased. It was not Ostpolitik that brought down the Communist rule over Eastern Europe – and ultimately the fall of the Soviet Union; it was the moral clarity and Christian witness of Karol Wojtyla.

Yet the Vatican continues to pursue the failed approach of the past, reasoning that in order to receive the Eucharist, people need priests, who in turn must be ordained by bishops, so accommodation must be reached with totalitarian regimes to appoint those bishops.

The Vatican and the CCP

China has already breached the agreement, appointing a bishop without the approval of the Vatican. Other bishops have disappeared or are under arrest.

When Cardinal Zen attempted to discuss these matters with the Pope, he was ignored. The Holy See’s Foreign Minister said that speaking out against the repression in Hong Kong would not make a difference! Tell that to faithful Catholics like Zen, and the publisher, Jimmy Lai, on trial for supporting liberty.

The CCP is committed to the “Sinicization of religion” in China. Crosses have been removed from Christian churches; Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques have been destroyed; and, in actions reminiscent of Hitler’s National Reich Church, photos and sayings of Xi Jinping have been displayed in places of worship. Pastors have been arrested and jailed.

The latest instructions from the Taiyuan city Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau are an example of what is happening across the country.

At a meeting of Three-Self Church pastors, the official CCP-controlled Protestant organisation, they were given instructions: “conscientiously study and implement the spirit of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China,” teach parishioners to “always follow the Party,” and “study Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.” Sermons should reinforce Marxist religious studies. There was nothing about Christian teachings or the Bible!

What is actually happening in China should guide the Vatican, not a failed foreign policy.

Xi Jinping seems to have a better grasp of history than the architects of the accommodation with China. He warns regularly about the collapse of the Communist Soviet Union, knowing that it was the spirit of the people, inspired by the likes of John Paul II, which brought the change. Religion must be crushed or controlled, Xi believes, if the CCP is to avoid the fate of the Soviets.

Taking Action

It is easy to ignore the persecution of the faithful in China, but we must not. May 21–28 is an annual week of Global Prayer for the Church and the People of China. Launched in 2021 by an informal network of Christian legislators from around the world, the campaign encourages all persons, churches, religious communities and people of good will to take it up as well.

The Global Week of Prayer was initiated in response to the call of President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Cardinal Charles Bo for prayer for the people and Church in China. Following the arrest of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, Cardinal Bo has renewed and strengthened his call. He writes: “I urge Christians of all traditions everywhere to pray for Hong Kong especially, and the Church in China, as well as the Uyghurs, Tibetans and others facing persecution in China, during that Week of prayer.”


Originally published at MercatorNet and Kevin’s Columns. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

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One Comment

  1. Kaylene Emery 30 May 2023 at 9:55 am - Reply

    You share generously, your knowledge and understanding and I thank you Kevin. It is pure relief to read my own heart, articulated in a way I could never hope to.
    I would like to add only one point. It is not just the Catholic Church who have employed the technique of Ostpolitik = a doctrine of accommodation with totalitarian regimes. Almost all – of our churches across the World have been systematically, over time, infiltrated by Ostpolitik. In short we dance with the devil and destroy our own souls – we conspire with the devil for the sake of comfort and false safety. All lies from hell.

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