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China’s one-sided deal with the Vatican

Rome sends the wrong signal to a hostile Beijing—again


Pope Francis speaks at The Vatican on Jan. 24. Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Medichini

China’s one-sided deal with the Vatican
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As a Chinese spy balloon floated across the American West, the American people’s response is understandably one of outrage at such a hostile act. Indeed, we have seen a united bipartisan response to the threat of the Chinese Communist Party, as indicated by the overwhelming bipartisan vote to establish the new U.S. House Select Committee on China. And this consensus spreads across the free world at large, among our Asian allies like Japan and Australia for certain, but our European allies as well.

The one notable exception among the key stakeholders of the free world is the Vatican.

You would think that the Roman Catholic Church would be at the forefront of condemning the Chinese government, given its “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom” that “continues to severely persecute many different religious groups throughout the country, including Catholic and Protestant Christians.” That’s according to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, the official government agency charged with tracking such things.

Yet rather than staring down such persecution in the manner of John Paul II’s approach to his native Poland, Pope Francis has consistently pursue a conciliatory approach. Last December, for instance, the Vatican announced it was setting Father Matteo Ricci, a 16th Century missionary to China, on the path to sainthood. Ricci arrived in Macau, a Portuguese province on the Pacific coastline of southeastern China, in 1582. From there he moved into mainland China and preached for nearly three decades. He was the first Westerner invited into Peking, the Chinese capital city (now Beijing), where he was buried upon his death in 1610 after a special dispensation from the emperor. He earned his place at the imperial court through helpful scholarly works on calendars, astronomy, and geography.

Though Matteo’s life is impressive, it is notable that he was invited into the Imperial Court, he died peacefully, and was buried by imperial decree in a place of honor. In other words, he was not a martyr. Perhaps his life of peaceful collaboration and patient persuasion with the government is why the current Catholic bishop of Hong Kong reported that a local government functionary told him “the announcement is widely circulated in China with favorable reception of this well-deserved recognition.” In other words, the Chinese government received the message intended by the Vatican: We want to continue working with you. That message is a mistake.

The Chinese government has proven time and again it cannot be trusted.

Four years ago, to great fanfare, the Vatican and the Chinese Government entered into a provisional agreement that was supposed to end the persecution of authentic Catholics. Historically, there had always been two Catholic churches in China: an above-ground “Patriotic Catholic Association” loyal to Beijing, with priests and bishops selected by the government, and an underground church loyal to Rome, whose bishops were selected by the pope, as canon law requires. The agreement promised a new era of dual recognition where both sides would move toward convergence through recognition of one another’s bishops. Eventually, the hope was that the underground church would no longer need to be underground as it was accorded the official recognition needed to operate in the open.

It has not gone as planned. Only six bishops have been appointed with joint recognition over the four years. Yet in October 2022, the Vatican decided to renew the deal anyway, acknowledging it was “going slowly” but pressing ahead hopefully. One month later, the Vatican announced the Chinese government had recently appointed a bishop in direct defiance of the agreement, a rare public admission from a bureaucracy anxious to make the deal work. Also in November, a Chinese court convicted the retired archbishop of Hong Kong, the nonagenearian Cardinal Joseph Zen, of violating a special national security law when he gave public support to pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong.

To sum up: A month after the Chinese government blatantly breaks the bishops deal it just renewed and then convicts a cardinal of supporting protestors for democracy, the Vatican’s response is to elevate a historic priest figure who was closely allied to the Beijing government of his day, patiently working through cultural gaps to eventually achieve legitimacy. That is the wrong signal to send. The Chinese government has proven time and again it cannot be trusted—hopefully the Vatican and the White House will start showing some backbone in response. Sadly, the Vatican seems most determined to appease the Chinese communists.


Daniel R. Suhr

Daniel R. Suhr is an attorney who fights for freedom in courts across America. He has worked as a senior adviser for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as a law clerk for Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and at the national headquarters of the Federalist Society. He is a member of Christ Church Mequon. He is an Eagle Scout, and he loves spending time with his wife Anna and their two sons, Will and Graham, at their home near Milwaukee.


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