Written by Kathy Thompson
In 2018, representatives of the Catholic Church signed a controversial accord with China known as the Sino-Vatican Provisional Agreement, which some say has escalated China’s crackdown on Christians and other religious minorities. The mainstream media, as well as conservative Catholic and Christian outlets, are carrying reports of forced abortions and medical experimentation, churches being closed and religious icons being replaced by pictures of Xi Jinping. In this interview, China expert Steve Mosher explains the implications of this agreement, particularly for Chinese Catholics, whom retired Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong says have been “incredibly betrayed”.
Steve, many elements of the 2018 Sino-Vatican Agreement were initially secret: have any details been disclosed since it was signed? Are we left to make an educated guess as to its contents?
While the provisions of the agreement remain secret, it reportedly deals with bilateral relations and the ordination of bishops. It does not call for Underground bishops and priests to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which remains in the eyes of the Vatican a schismatic creation of the Chinese Communist Party, but it does apparently acknowledge that Catholic clergy will be required to register with the Communist authorities and that concession was all the Communist authorities needed to begin strong-arming Underground clergy into joining the CPCA as part of the “registration” process.
The future selection of bishops is also problematic. Chinese sources have made it clear that candidates will be proposed by the Communist Party for ratification by the Pope. The Pope may veto one or two candidates to be sure, but Communist officials have made it clear that he cannot indefinitely delay the process, nor continuously veto one candidate after another. If this happens the official implied, Party officials will simply return to illicitly ordaining bishops. Pope Francis claims that this process preserves his authority. “The Pope names the bishops,” he has repeatedly asserted. Whether the ability to exercise a (temporary) veto power over the process actually does preserve papal authority not only for him, but for his successors, seems questionable however.
The accord was initially brokered by ex-Cardinal McCarrick, then finalised under Cardinal Parolin. Now that the extent of McCarrick’s corruption is widely-known, can you suggest why it was he that was placed in charge of negotiations with China and what, if anything, he personally stood to gain from improving relations between China and the Vatican?
The former Cardinal, now laicized, was, for a couple of decades, a kingmaker in the American Catholic church. He visited Rome frequently and his advice on many things, including the appointment of American bishops was apparently highly valued. For example, one of McCarrick’s proteges, Cardinal Blaise Cupich, was not only given Chicago he received the red hat almost immediately. The previous occupant of that see, Cardinal Francis George, who was known for his orthodoxy, found that his recommendations to the Vatican concerning his successor were simply ignored.
According to McCarrick’s longtime secretary (see the http://thefigueiredoreport.com), Msgr. Anthony Figueredo, McCarrick simply ignored the restrictions placed on his ministry and travel by Pope Benedict. He continued to be active in international diplomacy and made visits to Beijing on the Vatican’s behalf. As Msgr. Figueredo reports, he wrote to Pope Francis,
“When you greeted me so cheerfully in Washington as an adjunct member of the foreign service, I received this as a challenge to continue as an amateur in the very noble work of the foreign relations of the Holy See. I have maintained on a quiet level our relationship with China and have been developing new relationships with the Arab countries of the Middle East. They have been inviting me to many of their meetings where I can continue to assure them of Your Holiness’ interest, concern and love for our Muslim brothers and sisters … With God’s help, before He calls me home, I will help to bring you China and the great dream of Matteo Ricci will begin to be realized once again” (letter to Pope Francis of September 30, 2015).
Why a notorious homosexual predator was given a number of sensitive assignments by those in the Vatican is a mystery to me.
In May 2018, you spent an hour with Cardinal Parolin, trying to persuade him not to go ahead with the agreement. Do you think you had any influence at all on his final decision or on the agreement’s make-up?
By the time I met with the Secretary of State, the agreement had already been negotiated. As Cardinal Parolin said to me, “We are simply waiting on the Chinese side to sign the agreement.”
I did warn him about the new regulations governing religious activity which had come into effect on 1 February 2018. These called for Underground bishops and priests to submit to the Communist authorities as a condition of staying in ministry. He dismissed my concern, saying that: “We have no objection to the requirement that everyone register with the authorities.”
But this was no simple “registration.” It was a requirement that all clergy join the schismatic Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and profess that their first loyalty was to the officially atheistic Party-State. Those who refused were subject to even more intense persecution than before.
It took nine months—and countless pleas from Underground clergy–for the Vatican to formulate a response to this violation of the Sino-Vatican Agreement. The “Pastoral Guidelines” issued to bishops and clerics in China in June of this year, however, only added to the confusion.
First, the Guidelines imply that the decision to register with the authorities is entirely up to the individual bishop or priest in question, but since the Vatican has already approved such registration, on what grounds is a member of the Underground clergy to object when Communist officials come calling?
Second, the Guidelines, using oddly convoluted phrasing, suggest that, “if … the text of the declaration required for the registration does not appear respectful of the Catholic faith,” a priest may sign. But there is no “if” about it. Such “declarations” always require joining a schismatic organization, the CPCA and therefore are always “disrespectful of the Catholic faith.”
Third, the Guidelines instruct a priest to “specify in writing” that he is signing the declaration “without failing in his duty to remain faithful to the principles of Catholic doctrine.” They add that, when such a written clarification “is not possible,” the priest may do so orally and “if possible” in the presence of a witness.
As one who has been arrested in China and forced to write a “confession,” I can personally attest to the fact that there is exactly zero chance that a beleaguered priest will be allowed to either call witnesses, amend the “declaration” in any way, or even openly declare that he disagrees with its contents. Reading such advice calls to mind a Chinese saying: “One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
In fact, the advice from the Vatican was so obviously unworkable that it led Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong to journey to Rome to lodge a protest with the Pope, who said that he would “look into it.” But there has been no public word from the Vatican on this matter.
It was surprising to see some criticism of the Sino-Vatican Agreement in a publication that normally goes to great lengths to defend the current papacy. Is this a sign that the Vatican will be coming under increasing pressure to renegotiate the deal, especially in light of other mainstream media reports of extreme discrimination against Muslim Uyghurs and Christians?
The world is waking up to the fact that the Chinese Communists are waging war on all religions, but especially on Catholics and Muslims. For example, the U.S. Commission in International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in its 20th Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, devoted an entire section to China. Not only did it designate China as a “Tier 1” country—a category reserved for the worst offenders of religious freedom—it went further. It accused China of being “in a category all by itself” in terms of both the scope and severity of its attacks on religious believers.
The state seems to see Catholics and other Christians as a particular threat, perhaps because their numbers have been growing so fast. China’s Christians may now outnumber the 94-million-member Chinese Communist Party, so it is no surprise that Party leader Xi Jinping sees them as a threat to his continued rule. In all, up to 3 million people in China may currently be in detention camps solely because of their faith, mostly Christians, Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims.
In light of this persecution, the Commission has recommended that the Chinese officials in charge be sanctioned. As they write in the report, released on April 30th: The U.S. government—and the international community—must swiftly and resolutely sanction Chinese officials and agencies that have perpetrated or tolerated severe religious freedom violations, including Chen Quanguo, Communist Party Secretary in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and other Politburo Members.
Of course, the person most responsible for the current wave of persecution is Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping himself, whose determination to stamp out all religious sentiment in China rivals the late Chairman Mao’s purges of the Fifties and Sixties. In fact, Xi Jinping and other Chinese Communist leaders have consciously rejected all of the building blocks of Western Civilization–democracy, the rule of law, civil society, a free press, human rights and the free market. All of these are, in the words of Central Committee Directive No. 9 of 2013, “threats to the continued rule of the Party.”
Most critically, they have rejected the transcendent capstone of Christianity which binds the whole of Western Civilization together. They understand that China’s conversion to Christianity would mark the end of their brutal system of rule. This is why the persecution of the Church in China will only intensify.
Cardinal Zen is reported as saying that the Chinese government has escalated its crackdown on Catholics precisely because “the Holy See is helping the authorities of the government to do this.” Would you agree with that assessment?
Absolutely. The Vatican should have listened to retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen. The proposed deal with the Chinese Communists, the Cardinal had earlier warned, would turn out badly for the underground Chinese Catholic Church. Zen has since described the actual agreement as a “complete surrender” and “an incredible betrayal” of Chinese Catholics.
Not long before the agreement was signed, the Communist authorities abolished the government’s “Bureau of Religious Affairs” and handed responsibility for controlling all religious activities to its own United Front Works Department. As I warned Cardinal Parolin at the time, while the Vatican had earlier been negotiating with government officials, from now on they would be dealing directly with atheistic Communist Party officials. These would be determined to stamp out Catholicism as a “foreign religion” root, stem and branch. Any deal with United Front officials, I told him, would not only offer no protection to Catholics in China but would, in fact, result in increased persecution of the Catholic Church.
That, sadly, is exactly what has transpired. In fact, China seems to be using the “cover” of the Sino-Vatican agreement to ramp up persecution of not only Catholics but Christians and other religions as well. The Communists have since raided or closed down hundreds of Protestant house churches, including Zion Church, Rongguili Church and Early Rain Covenant Church.
China’s Social Credit system with its widespread surveillance is a concept that frightens and disturbs many of us. Can you see any parallels in our (American/Australian/European) culture with this kind of system? How far are we in the West from this sort of civic totalitarianism?
China is using a nationwide hi-tech surveillance system in an attempt to watch everyone all the time and what it does with this information is to assess everyone’s political reliability by giving them a so-called Social Credit Score.
If you associate with dissidents, post criticism of regime policies, or even fail to pay back a bank loan, your Social Credit Score plummets. A low Social Credit Score will exclude you from well-paying jobs, make it impossible for you to get a house or a car loan, or even book a hotel room. The government will also ban your children from attending private schools, post your profile on a public blacklist and even slow down your internet connection.
There are even suggestions that, if your Social Credit Score falls too low, you will be preemptively arrested and sent to a re-education camp. Not because you have actually committed a crime, but because you are likely to.
The government claims that the purpose of the new system, which is to be in place nationwide in 2020, is to enhance trust and social stability by creating a “culture of sincerity” by “restoring social trust.” What it will actually create, of course, is a culture of fear and a nation of informants.
This is because one of the ways that people can improve their own Social Credit Score is by reporting on the supposed misdeeds of others. Individuals can earn points, for example, for reporting those who violate the new restrictions on religious practice, such as Underground Catholic priests on the run from the authorities, Christians who illegally meet to pray in private homes, or Uyghurs and Kazakhs in China’s far west whom they spot praying in public, fasting during Ramadan, or just growing a beard.
How many of the one to three million Muslims languishing in re-education camps were put there by informants eager to improve their own social credit scores at the expense of others?
Western criticism of the new system has been intense, with Human Rights Watch describing it as “chilling” and filled with arbitrary abuses of privacy and human rights.
In response, the Chinese Communist Party scoffs that Westerners are simply too unsophisticated to understand the wonders of the new system. Or in the words of the Communist Party’s Global Times, “The hypothetical theories of the West are based on their ignorance.” The massive social credit system, it goes on to say, is simply “beyond the understanding of Western countries.”
But I think that we understand it all too well.
It is China’s ancient totalitarian impulse—the absolute rule of the god-emperor over his people combined with the totalitarian impulse of communism—has been updated using modern technology—AI, machine learning, face recognition, DNA. Using stolen Western technology, the world’s first hi-tech digital dictatorship has been born in China. But it will not stay there. Other governments, including Venezuela, have begun adopting it. We will have to be vigilant to keep it from spreading to our own countries.