In September 2018, the Vatican and Communist China signed a landmark agreement in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) agreed to recognize the Catholic Church as a legal entity in China. In exchange, the Vatican conceded to the CCP the power to appoint bishops over which the Vatican retains the right of veto. Although both China and the Vatican never published the details, the deal effectively merged the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association—a CCP-controlled schismatic church that does not recognize the Pope—with the underground Catholic Church that remains faithful to Rome.
Ostensibly, Pope Francis negotiated the deal to obtain more freedom for the Catholic Church in China and to regularize the appointment of bishops. Long term, he has also expressed interest in establishing full diplomatic relations with the Communist state at a future date.
“This is not the end of a process. It’s the beginning,” said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke. “The objective of the accord is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, called on Catholics to “make concrete gestures of reconciliation among themselves, and so overcome past misunderstandings, past tensions, even recent ones.”
Over the last two years, however, the CCP has waged the worst persecution of religion since the Cultural Revolution. Under President Xi Jinping’s “Sinicization” program, the CCP has tried to substitute religion with Marxism and “socialist” values. China is demolishing churches, arresting thousands of clergy and faithful and placing severe restrictions and outright bans on freedom of worship.
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Many Catholic clergy and laity remain in jail for refusing to join the Patriotic Church, in some cases for decades. Bishop James Su Zhimin of the Diocese of Baoding was arrested in 1997 and has not been seen since 2003. Arrests of priests and bishops have increased since the deal came into effect.
The CCP approved new draconian laws against religion and began to restrict other technically illegal practices that were previously tolerated. Minors under eighteen are banned from receiving catechism or even attending Mass. The CCP places government agents to guard church entrances to keep children out and monitor who comes and goes and has even installed cameras inside churches to monitor and record who attends Mass.
The CCP has closed many Catholic churches, even those that had already received permits. The construction of new churches has slowed or stopped entirely. One month after the deal was signed, two shrines to Our Lady were demolished by the CCP in the name of “Sinicization.”1
Crosses on church buildings have been torn down and replaced with Chinese flags. Churches are required to replace crucifixes with portraits of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping, and the Communist national anthem is sung instead of church hymns. The Internet sale of religious items and books, including the Bible, are also banned.
The persecution of Catholics is part of a broader increase of repression in China, including the crackdown on Hong Kong and atrocities against other religious and ethnic groups such as the Uighurs.
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Although the Vatican gave the CCP power over the Catholic Church’s governance—something reprehensible in itself—in exchange for religious freedom, the CCP did not even fulfill its part of the bargain. Even Cardinal Parolin, the principal architect of the agreement, admitted that the results “have not been particularly striking.” Yet the Vatican is determined to renew this one-sided agreement, to the consternation of Catholics in China and across the West.
The stakes over the renewal of this deal rose significantly when on September 18, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo published an article in the magazine First Things titled “China’s Catholics and the Church’s Moral Witness.” He criticized the Vatican-China deal for having failed to stop the persecution of Catholics in China and for compromising the moral authority of the Catholic Church in the eyes of the faithful. The United States government, he wrote, was standing with those Chinese persecuted for their faith.2
Pope Francis is not the first Pope to accommodate Communist governments. The Vatican’s policy of warm relations and “peaceful coexistence”—called Ostpolitik after the policy of détente of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt towards Communist East Germany—began nearly sixty years ago in the pontificate of Pope John XXIII and continued with his successors.
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In The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story, historian Roberto de Mattei describes the shift in Vatican foreign policy before, during, and after the Council in favor of Communist regimes. As the Council began, Pope John XXIII invited two observers of the Russian Orthodox Church, then entirely controlled by the KGB, to Rome. They came after the Pope sent assurances to the Patriarch of Moscow that he did not intend for the Council to condemn Communism.3
Pope Paul VI received a regular stream of Communists at the Vatican. He welcomed the Soviet foreign minister Andrej Gromyko (1966), representatives from the Communist guerilla movements in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau (1970), Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (1973), and Yugoslavian dictator Josef Tito (1971).
During the latter’s visit, Paul VI expressed admiration for Yugoslavia’s Communist constitution. He declared that it contained praiseworthy principles such as the “humanization of the social sphere,” the “strengthening of solidarity and collaboration among men,” “respect for human dignity,” and “the general development of man as a free person.”4
In a demotion that shocked the Catholic world, Paul VI removed Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty, Archbishop of Esztergom, Hungary, and a symbol of anti-Communist resistance behind the Iron Curtain, from his diocese in November 1973 and replaced him with another bishop compliant with Hungary’s Communist government.
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Archbishop Agostino Casaroli served as Paul VI’s diplomat to strengthen Vatican relations with Communist countries. He made trips to Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Cuba. After Archbishop Casaroli Cuban visit in 1974, he declared that “the Catholics who live in Cuba are happy under the socialist regime.” Concerning the Castro dictatorship, the archbishop affirmed that “the Catholics and the Cuban people in general do not have the slightest problem with the socialist government” and that Catholics are “respected for their beliefs as any of the other citizens.”5
If Pope John Paul II disagreed with Archbishop Casaroli’s central role in the Vatican’s détente towards the Communist countries, he did not show it. At the first papal consistory after his election, the Polish Pope made Archbishop Casaroli a cardinal. He also promoted him to Secretary of State, a position he held until his retirement in 1990.
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John Paul II continued this policy of Ostpolitik with a trip to Cuba in January 1998. This very symbolic visit gave much-needed support to the Communist state still reeling after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Although he made general statements about “human rights,” the Pope attacked the American economic embargo, a principal talking point of the regime. Cuba’s “material and moral poverty,” he said, arises not only from “limitations to fundamental freedoms” and “discouragement of the individual,” but also from “restrictive economic measures—unjust and ethically unacceptable—imposed from outside the country.” Speaking after the Pope, Fidel Castro expressed his gratitude for the Pope’s visit. “For all your words, even those with which there may be some disagreement, I offer my thanks,” the Cuban dictator said.6
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State from 2006-2013, was a worthy successor of Cardinal Casaroli’s Ostpolitik diplomacy. He visited Cuba in October 2005 and again in February 2008. During his first visit, he met with and praised Fidel Castro for his “remarkable lucidity,” “respect for religion,” and “appreciation for the Church,” affirming that in Cuba, “the opening is already complete.” In his second visit to Cuba, Cardinal Bertone attacked the American embargo as “unjust and ethically unacceptable” and which constitutes “oppression of the Cuban people and a violation of their independence,” all while making vague statements about the need for “human rights” and freedom of religion.
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Cardinal Bertone’s visits paved the way for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba in March 2012. Although the Pope stated in an interview that Marxism in Cuba “no longer corresponds to reality,” he attacked the American embargo for its “restrictive economic measures imposed from outside.” Like his predecessor, Benedict XVI’s visit was predicated on the naïve hope that opening up to Communist regimes will earn freedom for Catholics. “It will bear fruit,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski at a press conference after returning from Havana. “What we are seeing is a springtime of faith, a reawakening of faith, a faith that will give the Cuban people a path to follow so that they will have a future of hope.”7
Pope Francis’s stopover visit to Cuba in September 2015 before his visit to the United States was a continuation of this same Ostpolitik. He refrained from any criticism of the Castro regime and had a cordial meeting with Raul and Fidel Castro. Shortly before he arrived, the government arrested at least 60 anti-Communist activists. He refused to meet with representatives of Cuban dissident groups such as the Ladies in White or even to say anything remotely critical of the Castro regime.8
History has shown that Ostpolitik did nothing to better the conditions of Catholics in Communist countries. In exchange for sixty years of much-needed moral and political support from the Vatican and Western states, Catholics and political dissidents in Communist China and Cuba are suffering and dying more than ever.
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So why do Pope Francis and others in the Church insist on continuing the failed Ostpolitik with China? In large part because the Catholic left has deep sympathy for Communist principles. Communism has always denied the doctrine of private property, attacked the traditional family rooted in natural law, and imposed an egalitarian dictatorship.
Pope Francis has pushed many of these themes in his speeches and documents. His encyclicals Laudato Si’ and Fratelli tutti, as well as the documents of the Pan-Amazon Synod, are full of attacks against free enterprise economy and private property. The latter explicitly attacks private property and national borders in the name of the “social function” of property. They also call for global governance to impose radical social changes supposedly necessary to avoid environmental and social catastrophe.
But perhaps the most explicit support for Communist China came from the President of the Pontifical Academy for Science and Social Sciences, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo. Commenting on his visit to China in an interview with the Catholic Herald in February 2018, he called China “extraordinary.” “What people don’t realize is that the central value in China is work, work, work. There’s no other way, fundamentally it is like St Paul said: he who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat.” In his view, China is the “best [at] implementing the social doctrine of the Church…You do not have shantytowns, you do not have drugs, young people do not take drugs”. Instead, there is a “positive national conscience.” “The economy does not dominate politics, as happens in the United States, something Americans themselves would say.” Bishop Sánchez Sorondo concluded by saying that China is “developing well” and now has “many points of agreement” with the Vatican.9
As the Vatican began its disastrous policy of Ostpolitik under Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, many Catholics were torn between their opposition to Communism and their fidelity to the Successor of Saint Peter. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, the great Brazilian Catholic leader, addressed these issues in two documents.
In 1963, he published The Freedom of the Church in the Communist State: The Impossible Coexistence.10 He demonstrated that Catholics living in Communist regimes cannot peacefully coexist with the regime because the latter always forces Catholics to compromise Faith and Morals, especially doctrines on family and private property. To compromise the integrity of the Faith for slightly less persecution will, in the long term, lead to its destruction.
After several pro-Communist actions by Pope Paul VI, in 1974, Prof. Corrêa de Oliveira wrote The Vatican Policy of Détente with Communist Governments—Should the TFPs Stand Down? Or Should They Resist? He explained the difficult position of faithful Catholic torn between obedience to the Holy Father and opposition to the evil of Communism. Just as Saint Paul resisted Saint Peter “to the face” (Gal. 2: 11), the faithful Catholic today must resist the Vatican’s policy of Ostpolitik while remaining faithful to the Pastor of Pastors. “In this filial act, we say to the Pastor of Pastors: Our soul is yours, our life is yours. Order us to do whatever you wish. Only do not order us to do nothing in the face of the assailing Red wolf. To this, our conscience is opposed.”11
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Likewise, the faithful Catholic today must reject the Vatican’s collaboration with Communist governments. In 1917, Our Lady of Fatima warned about the errors of Russia that would provoke “wars and persecutions of the Church” in which “the good would be martyred, the Holy Father will have much to suffer, and many nations will be annihilated.” As we witness the fulfillment of these prophecies more than a century later, let us turn our eyes and our prayers towards her, the Mother of Mercy, who promised the triumph of her Immaculate Heart.
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- Roberto de Mattei, The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story (Fitzwilliam, NH: Loretto Publications, 2012), p. 176.
- de Mattei, The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story, 539-540.
- Roberto de Mattei, Crusader of the Twentieth Century (Herefordshire, UK: Gracewing, 1998), p. 206.