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March 6, 2020 (CatholicCulture.org) — “Today, the Church in China looks to the future with hope,” Pope Francis said in the video message communicating his monthly prayer intentions. Yes, but that hope looks increasingly forlorn, as Chinese authorities continue to close down Catholic churches that do not accept the leadership of the government-backed Patriotic Association.

“The Church wants Chinese Christians to be truly Christians, and to be good citizens,” the Pope said in his video message, adding that “they need to achieve the unity of the divided Catholic community.”

Of course Christians should be good citizens, and of course Catholics should work for unity within the Church. But in the context of the current situation in China, the Pope’s message is truly stunning, because his prayer intention expresses exactly the message that Beijing authorities want to convey.

From Beijing’s perspective, a “good citizen” is someone who accepts the ideological leadership of the Communist Party — and in this case its reliable arm, the Patriotic Association. So when he encourages Chinese Catholics to be “good citizens,” the Pope seems to be saying that Catholics should follow the lead of the Patriotic Association. At least you can be very sure the Beijing regime will convey that message, claiming the Pope’s endorsement.

Admittedly the Pope did not actually say that Catholics should accept the Patriotic Association. But again, it’s an absolute certainty that Communist officials will put that interpretation on his words. And since that “spin” is so utterly predictable, why use those words? Why make it so easy for the Beijing regime to turn a papal prayer into a propaganda tool?

Remember that in June 2007, Pope Benedict XVI warned Chinese Catholics against the “entities that have been imposed” on the Church — an unmistakable reference to the Patriotic Association. In his letter to the Church in China, Pope Benedict said:

Likewise, the declared purpose of the afore-mentioned entities to implement “the principles of independence and autonomy, self-management and democratic administration of the Church” is incompatible with Catholic doctrine, which from the time of the ancient Creeds professes the Church to be “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.”

So is Pope Francis proposing that Chinese Catholics accept the leadership of a group whose fundamental purpose is “incompatible with Catholic doctrine”? Is he contributing to the Beijing regime’s campaign to gather all Catholics together under the Communist Party umbrella? And is he — this is in some ways the most stunning part of the video message — incorporating that message in a request for prayers from the universal Church?

When he cites the need “to achieve the unity of the divided Catholic community,” Pope Francis is making a different point. For years the Vatican has sought to overcome the split between the “official” Catholic Church, recognized by the Chinese government, and the “underground” Church, loyal to Rome. This week Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the former prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, said that the secret accord the Vatican struck with Beijing in 2018 was a product of diplomatic initiatives that had begun under Pope John Paul II and continued under Pope Benedict XVI. That’s true; there had been a long history of negotiations.

But Cardinal Re went further. In a public rebuke to Cardinal Joseph Zen, the most prominent critic of the secret accord, Cardinal Re said that Pope Benedict XVI had endorsed an early draft of the agreement with Beijing. The Italian prelate said that Cardinal Zen did not understand the current diplomatic accord, and suggested that Cardinal Zen’s persistent opposition damaged the unity of the Church.

To no one’s surprise, the feisty Cardinal Zen fired back, asking rhetorically why, if he endorsed the deal, Pope Benedict had not signed it. He reiterated his insistence that the former Pontiff had explicitly rejected a similar arrangement. And he proposed that the Vatican could clarify the matter if it would “just show me the signed text, which I have not been allowed to see to date.”

That last point is significant. Eighteen months after the Vatican-Beijing agreement was announced, we still don’t know what it says. We do know that:

  • The Vatican has accepted the legitimacy of eight government-appointed bishops who had previously been excommunicated because they were ordained without the approval of the Holy See;
  • Three bishops who were loyal to the Holy See voluntarily stepped down, to be replaced by bishops who had the government’s approval;
  • Only three bishops of the “underground” Church have been recognized by the Patriotic Association, while the others remain subject to harassment by public officials;
  • Churches that resist the Patriotic Association have been closed down, with government officials giving spurious explanations;
  • Red flags have replaced crucifixes in Catholic churches, and portraits of government leaders have replaced portraits of the Pope; surveillance cameras are in place to monitor worshippers; the national anthem is sung during Mass;
  • In some provinces, Christmas celebrations have been cancelledfunerals have been banned;
  • task force of the US bishops’ conference reported “Bibles confiscated, and children under 19 forbidden from attending Mass and receiving religious instruction.”

These are the fruits of the secret Vatican-Beijing agreement, promoted by Vatican officials who say that the deal was necessary for the sake of unity in the Chinese Church. Now Pope Francis asks us all to pray that Chinese Catholics will be “good citizens,” for the sake of that same unity. But it appears to be unity accepted on Beijing’s terms, unity under the rule of an institution whose purpose is “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.” For faithful Chinese Catholics it is unity in suffering.

Published with permission from CatholicCulture.org.