(LifeSiteNews) – This past Saturday, Pope Francis caved. After many months of delay, he finally accepted the Chinese Communist Party’s candidate for bishop of Shanghai, a bishop by the name of Joseph Shen Bin.
Shanghai, the most important diocese in all of China, was once the See of Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-mei (1901-2000), one of the most heroic bishops in recent history. Cardinal Kung spent three decades in a Communist prison cell (1955-85) for refusing to bend the knee to the atheistic CCP and had been secretly named a cardinal by Pope St. John Paul II in 1979. He was exiled in 1987 and spent his remaining years in the U.S.
Now the Shanghai cathedral is occupied by a man who has a long history of close collaboration with the CCP and its “Catholic” front organizations. Bishop Shen served for many years as the vice president of the schismatic Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and last year was tapped by the CCP to head something called the “College of Chinese Catholic Bishops,” a faux bishop’s conference under the control of its United Front Work Department.
In other words, whatever else his beliefs, Shen is a faithful and trusted servant of the Chinese Communist Party.
How did it come to this?
When the still-secret Sino-Vatican Agreement was signed in 2018, it was rumored that it allowed the Chinese Communist Party to select candidates to fill China’s dozens of empty sees, relegating the Pope’s role to merely endorsing the CCP’s choice.
At best, the arrangement might be seen as giving the Pope the right to veto unacceptable candidates, forcing the CCP to nominate another, more acceptable candidate. Even at the time the agreement was signed, however, Chinese officials were suggesting that the Pope’s endorsement would be a mere formality. The Pope should not wait too long before accepting our candidates, one official warned, or we would be forced to move ahead without him.
Pope Francis strenuously objected to this interpretation, repeatedly and emphatically proclaiming that “The Pope chooses the bishops.” What the Shanghai case makes crystal clear, however, is that this is simply not true in any real sense.
Bishop Shen’s arrival in Shanghai in April of this year — without prior consultation with the Vatican — left the Holy see in a quandary. Shanghai had been without a bishop for ten years.
Should Pope Francis reject the CCP’s choice, who had already moved into the bishop’s residence in China’s largest diocese, he would effectively be announcing to the world that the Bishop Shen was in schism. And that his conciliatory approach to China had produced nothing but failure.
To objective observers, the failure of the Pope’s approach to China has long been evident. In his September 26, 2018, letter to China’s Catholics, the Pope wrote that the agreement with China was intended to provide “good shepherds” for preaching the Gospel in China and “reestablishing full and visible unity in the Church.”
Allowing the CCP to appoint bishops, however, virtually ensures that they will not be “good shepherds.” And members of the Underground Church wanted nothing to do with the Communist-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), its priests or bishops.
At the time, seeking to reassure these millions of faithful Catholics, Cardinal Filoni, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, promised that neither the agreement nor Chinese law required underground Catholics to join the CCPA.
Yet that is exactly what happened. Primarily because the text of the agreement is secret, its terms can be — and in fact are — misrepresented by the Communist authorities to Chinese Catholics as a virtual order from the Vatican to join the CCPA. And the pressure has grown so intense that Francis Shuxin An, the official bishop of Baoding, China, has threatened to deny the sacraments to anyone who does not join the CCPA.
In other words, the Sino-Vatican Agreement has enabled Communist authorities to enlist the Catholic Church and its sacraments into the effort to control Catholics. Surely this is not the outcome that the Pope intended.
In its other purpose — the appointment of bishops — the agreement has disappointed as well. Over the past five years, only six bishops have been nominated by the CCP and confirmed by Pope Francis. That is an average of only one or two bishops a year.
Bear in mind that of the 104 CCP-defined dioceses in China at least 36 remain without bishops. Most of the rest are headed by bishops who are rapidly approaching, if not well beyond, retirement age. The acceptance by the Vatican of one or two CCP-nominated bishops each year will not begin to offset the ongoing attrition in their ranks, much less begin to fill the dozens of empty sees.
If the criterion by which we should evaluate the success of the Sino-Vatican Agreement is the appointment of “good shepherds” to fill China’s empty sees, then to date it has been a failure. This is true even leaving aside the question of the where the primary loyalty of the new bishops lies.
To this China watcher, the Sino-Vatican Agreement is being used by the CCP to accomplish the slow decapitation of the Catholic Church in China. That is certainly the goal of Xi Jinping, a brutal dictator cut from the same cloth as Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin.
Xi made clear in a December 2021 speech that he intends to bring every religion in China — Catholic, Christian, Muslim, Taoist, and Buddhist — under the direct control of the CCP and make them serve its purposes. Any religion that does not teach its members to love the Party and socialism is a ‘backward’ religion engaged in ‘illegal religious activities,’ Xi said, and will be stamped out. Religions should only conduct their activities in approved places of worship and must not interfere with social life or the education of the young.
It goes without saying that Xi Jinping intends to crush the Underground Church and is using the Sino-Vatican Agreement for this purpose. But it is also clear that by preventing the faith from being passed on to the next generation he intends the same fate for Catholicism in general. In the meantime, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association will be used to promote the Chinese Communist Party’s political goals and ideology as well as “Core Leader” Xi himself.
The Sino-Vatican Agreement, instead of leading to a new birth of religious freedom for Catholics in China, is instead being used by the CCP for its own purposes. And these are, it is now clear, to decapitate the Church hierarchy by slow-rolling the appointment of bishops while at the same time slowly strangling Catholicism itself out of existence.
Despite all of this, the Sino-Vatican Agreement was renewed by the Vatican in 2020 and then again in 2022.
Vatican diplomats continue to try and save face, belatedly acknowledging that the secret pact was “not the best deal possible,” and blaming “Chinese domestic politics” for its failure.
But China’s “domestic politics” have not changed. The Chinese Communist Party has long imposed a brutal one-party dictatorship on China and persecuted religious believers of all stripes.
The Vatican knew this going in. It has sacrificed the Underground Catholic Church in China for nothing.
Pope Francis will continue to rubber-stamp the CCP picks for bishop. To do otherwise would be to admit that his China policy has failed.
Trapped by his own agreement, the Servant of the Servants of God has become, as far as the Church in China is concerned, the servant of the CCP.
Steven W. Mosher is the President of the Population Research Institute and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Pandemics.