Unholy Communion: The Vatican’s Deal with the CCP

By Sarah Gooch



When you dance with the devil, you do it one step at a time. That’s how he breaks you down into compromise: not demanding immediate extremes but making one small request after another until eventually, your yes is automatic. That’s how Hitler conditioned much of the German church into compliance — and if the Vatican isn’t careful, that may be exactly the trick China is pulling on the Catholic church now.


Granted, Chinese President Xi Jinping hasn’t killed 6 million innocents, but neither had Hitler when he made his first demand to the German church. So how many human rights violations does it take before cooperation becomes unconscionable? Suppose someone’s hands aren’t drenched in blood, just spattered with it. If you then shake hands with him, do those residual smears of red on your palm make you guilty, or is that just the price of doing business in the real world?


It’s an interesting question for an ethics class, but China isn’t playing in hypotheticals. Real people who have committed no crime are currently detained in Chinese jails and reeducation camps, while Pope Francis shakes hands with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He’s ready to do business, eager to dance.


The history of Catholics in China has been more like a dirge than a dance.


Two separate Catholic churches have long existed in China: one faithful to Beijing, the other to Rome. In 1957, the Chinese government established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), with bishops appointed by the CCP and required to sign documents denying any connection between the Chinese Church and the Vatican. In response, Pope Pius XII condemned the CCPA, excommunicating its bishops and appointing his own bishops within the underground Catholic Church in China. The CCP’s reaction was to persecute the underground Church. Over the decades, underground churches were frequently demolished and priests arrested, tortured, or killed.

Two separate Catholic churches have long existed in China: one faithful to Beijing, the other to Rome.

Now, though, the Vatican and the CCP want to let bygones be bygones. In 2016, Wang Zuoan, head of China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs, called for the Vatican to improve its relations with China. Wang said the Catholic Church in China should have “independence, autonomy, and self-direction” – that is, from the Vatican, not from the Chinese government. By “self-directed,” Wang meant CCP-directed, as he said Chinese Catholics should follow Communist principles “with President Xi Jinping as the core.”


In 2018, the Vatican and the CCP signed the Sino-Vatican Agreement, which allowed the CCP to nominate potential bishops, with the pope giving final approval. The Vatican Guidelines of 2019 then advised underground churches to register with the CCPA, interpreting the phrase “independence, autonomy, and self-direction” to refer to independence from political influences, not the Vatican — an interpretation the CCP has never endorsed.

The Sacred Heart Cathedral in Guangzhou, China

The appointment of bishops sounds like a minor point, but the Sino-Vatican Agreement left many within the underground church feeling abandoned by Rome.


The CCP only appoints bishops willing to defer to the party in anything. Theoretically, politics and religion could coexist in separate domains. But if the highest authority is God, then citizens may resist earthly authority when they think it conflicts with God’s. If, on the other hand, the CCP only appoints bishops who say that God is always in agreement with the government — that God commands unthinking submission to the state — then religious devotion can promote political devotion: in order to obey God, believers must also obey the government.


Indeed, President Xi has passed new regulations increasing the Sinicization of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” (or state-appeasing religious associations) for Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. The CCP frequently reviews sermons and plans to “retranslate the Bible or rewrite biblical commentaries” to mirror state messaging. Catholics who register with the CCPA jeopardize the very tenets of their faith, as they give the CCP room to modify any biblical passage or doctrine it finds disagreeable.

Catholics who register with the CCPA jeopardize the very tenets of their faith, as they give the CCP room to modify any biblical passage or doctrine it finds disagreeable.

Furthermore, the pope’s endorsement of the CCPA seems to have emboldened the CCP in its persecution of underground Catholics. Since 2018, the CCP has stepped up its oppression, closing more underground Catholic churches and arresting more bishops. According to the 2018 US State Department Report on International Religious Freedom, CCP authorities have continued to remove crosses from churches to reduce overtly Christian symbolism and have installed surveillance cameras to monitor church activity. The Vatican has made no explicit statement denouncing this persecution.


This silence angers many. An article in the National Catholic Reporter quoted Patrick Poon, a Catholic in Hong Kong, who worried that the pope would blindly approve all the CCP’s nominations for bishops rather than offend China. “Religious freedom will vanish in China, as only those following the government’s arrangement will be able to survive,” he said. Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai, a Chinese bishop in Greece, accused the Vatican of abandoning underground Catholics and compared the agreement to the COVID-19 virus, mutating after every new compromise.


The text of the Sino-Vatican Agreement is itself a secret, and while Pope Francis regularly condemns religious persecution around the world, glaringly absent is any mention of China’s abuses against Uyghurs, Tibetan monks, Falun Gong practitioners, Protestants, or even Catholics. Previously, Pope John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese martyrs, angering China by calling their deaths wrongful, while Pope Benedict XVI struck a middle path between pleading for reconciliation with the CCP and acknowledging the persecution of Chinese Catholics. Pope Francis, however, is all smiles whenever China looks his way. While his own flock is led away to slaughter, the shepherd has nothing to say.

While Pope Francis regularly condemns religious persecution around the world, glaringly absent is any mention of China’s abuses.

Perhaps the Vatican is simply currying favor with Beijing to maintain bargaining power on behalf of the faithful. Paul P. Mariani, S. J., author of Church Militant: Bishop Kung and Catholic Resistance in Communist Shanghai, speculated that the Vatican may be hoping that appeasing the CCP now may later yield increased freedom for underground bishops or improved diplomacy, like a papal ambassador in Beijing or an invitation for the pope to visit China.


The Vatican defends the Sino-Vatican Agreement with a plea for the unity of Chinese Catholics and greater missional impact on Chinese society. Just as corporations salivate over potentially reaching over a billion Chinese consumers, the Vatican salivates over potentially saving over a billion Chinese souls. And, the thinking goes, the CCP oppresses religious groups no matter who denounces it. If speaking up makes no difference, why not work with the CCP instead to produce some limited benefit to the Chinese people rather than none at all?


History gives a grim answer. Many German churches thought working with Hitler would help them save more German souls. Yet the crosses they left as their legacy weren’t on gold chains, but on the headstones of numberless graves.


When Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, he didn’t look so bad. As Eric Metaxas detailed in his book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, many Christians found Hitler compelling because he spoke about God and morality. But in a matter of months, Hitler passed the Aryan Paragraph, which pressured German churches into removing anyone of Jewish heritage from leadership positions. For the sake of unity, many pastors considered forming one government-endorsed church, a small compromise for the greater good of evangelizing Nazified Germany. Jewish Christians (ethnic Jews who followed the Christian faith) could worship in Jewish churches.


Like the CCP, Hitler’s first demand concerned who could serve in leadership. It was a matter of control: by choosing the leadership of the church, Hitler was eliminating all dissenting influences so his word alone would echo throughout German cathedrals.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of a few German pastors who recognized that working with a diabolical force was not compromise but defeat and insisted that the church must defy an immoral state. Most German churches joined the state-approved German Evangelical Church, leaving Bonhoeffer to establish the Confessing Church as an anti-government alternative.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his students in Friedrichsbrunn, Germany, 1932

German Christians did not realize that Hitler planned to require the national church to replace all crosses and Bibles on the altar with swastikas and copies of Mein Kampf. This was the Nazi secret: they would feign enough religious sentiment to gain sympathy from the Church, then inch the Church’s worldview in line with Nazi ideology. “You can do anything you want with [Protestant pastors],” Hitler once said. “They are insignificant little people, submissive as dogs, and they sweat with embarrassment when you talk to them.”

Hitler greets Reichbishop Ludwig Müller and Abbott Albanus Schachleiter at the Reich Party Rally for Unity and Strength, 4-10 September 1934

The German Evangelical Church soon required pastors to swear an oath of loyalty to the Fuhrer, like the CCPA’s declaration of devotion to CCP principles. With the passage of the Nuremberg Laws (discriminatory laws against the Jews), more Protestants abandoned the anti-Semitic German Evangelical Church. Leaders of the Confessing Church, meanwhile, were imprisoned, with Bonhoeffer executed after the Nazis uncovered his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler.


While Hitler’s campaign of hatred raged across Germany, the church split into two, much like the two Chinese Catholic churches: one registered church that complied with an abusive government, and one underground church that the government abused. Although the Vatican has eliminated the separation between the two branches of Chinese Catholicism in name, on the ground in China, countless modern Bonhoeffers still stand firmly against the CCP — even as Rome no longer stands with them.


Perhaps one such Bonhoeffer – for a time, anyway – was Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the senior bishop of Shanghai. Handpicked by the CCPA, Ma was expected to be compliant towards the CCP. Instead, in 2012, Ma publicly resigned from the CCPA at his own ordination ceremony. In retaliation, the Chinese government placed him under house arrest. In 2016, still under house arrest, he recanted his decision to resign from the CCPA. Again, Pope Francis has said nothing publicly about this persecution, other than to say that he “prays for Ma.”

Vatican City

I may not be a Catholic, but my Protestant faith makes Catholics feel like my religious grandparents — because, hey, my actual grandparents were Catholics, and I grew up praying with them to the same God before dinner. Stories of persecuted Catholics hit home, and I have learned to be fiercely protective of any powerless group coming under attack. This is my spiritual duty, more so than any pressure to pursue a false unity that really means allowing bullies to trample on the rights of others. If a so-called spiritual leader will not stand up for values like mutual respect and fair treatment of everyone, then he is no spiritual leader to me.


Many Christians skew Jesus’ teachings, emphasizing the meekness of turning the other cheek while ignoring the Jesus who turned over tables in the temple, wielding a homemade whip and denouncing the merchants’ greed. Modern Jesus is a wimpy nice guy who never disagrees with anything. These Christians chirp verses about unity and love, then praise mindless obedience by quoting, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” (a verse that truly relates to paying taxes, not obeying everything the government says) or the passage in Romans 13:1-6, which commands Christians to submit to the governing authorities, which are established by God in order to reward good behavior and punish the wicked. This passage, however, only describes governing authorities who at least attempt to praise good and punish evil — in other words, true authority. It should not be taken as an excuse to obey tyrants. Romans 13 says that Christians should not live in lawless defiance of taxes and legislation they dislike — but they are never encouraged to muffle their conscience and participate in evil simply because the government (or any leader) tells them to.


Indeed, the Bible brims with stories of believers who defied wicked rulers. Take the apostles John and Peter (who, don’t forget, Catholics consider the original pope). When told to stop proclaiming the name of Jesus, they told the authorities, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 4:29). To say that Christianity has no place for civil disobedience is to read one paragraph of Romans and ignore the rest of the Bible.


No one, not even the pope, can say what comes next. However, the plight of the Uyghur people does not bode well for any faith group in China. Xi remains adamant in his efforts to bring all religion rigidly in line with socialist thought, and all it will take is a declaration that a group has become “extreme” or “terrorists” for members of that group to end up in reeducation camps alongside the Uyghurs.

Uyghur detainees at a “reeducation” camp in Xinjiang

Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, criticized the Sino-Vatican Agreement, arguing that the Vatican’s claim to feel compassion for Chinese Catholics is unsubstantiated, since it encourages submission to dictatorship and offers the underground church no protection from the CCP. “True compassion must be to free the slaves from slavery,” Zen said, “not to encourage them to be good slaves.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen, with children, 2006 (Picture Credit: Stephen Wu)

Zen, who is 90, has since been arrested on vague charges of collusion with foreign powers and faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life behind bars. The Vatican might end up seeing the unity it hoped for within Chinese Catholicism after all: if everyone with a different point of view simply vanishes, then the Catholics who remain will all march in lockstep, faithfully, devotedly in sync.

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