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Commentary: Sino-Vatican cooperation a threat to religious liberty

Stefano Graziosi and James Jay Carafano, The Heritage Foundation on

Published in Religious News

If you’re free to worship as you see fit, chances are you’re not in China these days, where religious persecution is rampant.

Examples abound. Last month, the Catholic press agency AsiaNews reported that “in the space of just two days, almost all the ecclesiastical personnel of the apostolic prefecture of Xinxiang were wiped out with an operation by the police forces of the province of Hebei.” Arrests included a bishop, seven priests and 10 seminarians.

Small wonder that the watchdog group Open Doors USA ranks China in the top 20 of the countries where Christians are most at risk of persecution. The Catholic Leader reports “the Chinese Communist Party removed Bible apps from the App Store and suspended Christian WeChat accounts across the country.” All this oppression raises a serious question: Why is the Catholic Church still practicing constructive engagement with Beijing?

If it was to emphatically denounce and help end the persecution, that would be one thing. But no: In 2018, the Vatican signed an agreement on the appointment of bishops between the People's Republic and the Holy See. The deal was renewed last October until 2022.

The Holy See claimed that the agreement was merely pastoral and not political. One of the main supporters, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, said he was pleased with the dialogue with Beijing. He downplayed the idea that Christians in China had anything to fear, literally asking reporters: “But, what persecution?”

The Vatican’s persistent détente with Beijing raises some troubling concerns. For starters, it continues even as the Chinese Communist Party continues to spearhead an ongoing genocide against the Uyghurs and other religious and ethnic minorities. To make matters worse, despite the agreement, the condition of Catholics in China has not improved.

Further, while the pastoral intent of the Holy See is understandable, in reality it is not possible to clearly distinguish the pastoral from the political in China. The Vatican’s deal gives political legitimacy to the Chinese regime.

It can’t be coincidental that, three years ago, the Italian Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, in supporting the original agreement with China, mentioned the case of the Concordat of 1801 between Pope Pius VII and Napoleon. It is true that the Sino-Vatican agreement is not a concordat, but it could become one. That’s a problematic scenario, supporting moral and political values that are not simply different from but antithetical to Christianity. Accepting the total incompatibility of value systems seriously jeopardizes the principle of Libertas Ecclesiae (the freedom of religion of ecclesiastical authority of the Catholic Church from temporal powers).

Worse, the Vatican has abandoned holding the Chinese regime accountable for its lack of transparency and trustworthiness. At a time when many are clamoring for Beijing to be held accountable for its role in the Uyghur genocide and global pandemic, the Vatican is out of step in giving Beijing a pass on significant abuses of religious liberty.

 

The Vatican’s disappointing diplomacy caught the attention of the last U.S. administration. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was critical of the Beijing deal. The Trump team believed that this agreement could give political and diplomatic legitimacy to the People's Republic, thereby strengthening its soft power.

As relations between the Holy See and Washington grow frostier, Chinese has been bargaining harder with the Vatican, a potential problem also for Taiwan’s autonomy, given that the Vatican is one of the few countries that still continues to have full diplomatic relations with Taipei. In this context, according to Global Times (a tabloid affiliated to the Chinese Communist Party), Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said last October that “the two sides [the People’s Republic and the Holy See] will stay in close contact to keep pushing forward the relationship.” It cannot therefore be ruled out that Beijing's goal is to push the Vatican to break its diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

If the new administration is as committed to religious liberty as it claims it is, and if it is as serious about pushing back on Beijing’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy as it claims, then the U.S. needs to double-down on pressing the Vatican to get on the right side of the China’s flagrant abuses. In short, we need more moral clarity from both Washington and Rome.

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ABOUT THE WRITERS

Stefano Graziosi is an essayist and a political analyst who writes for the Italian newspaper La Verità and the weekly magazine Panorama. James Jay Carafano is a Heritage Foundation vice president, in charge of the think tank’s research program on matters of national security and foreign relations.

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