Chinese Totalitarianism and Catholic Witness

“The current assault on religion in China under President Xi Jinping is the most comprehensive attempt to manipulate and control religious communities since the Cultural Revolution.” Or so I argued in congressional testimony last fall. Part of Xi’s plan is to force “fundamental alterations in Catholic doctrine and witness.”

The 2018 Sino-Vatican Provisional Agreement on nominating and ordaining bishops must be assessed in the harsh light of Xi’s policy. Bishops are critical to the well-being of Catholics and the Church. They are simultaneously shepherds and public witnesses to the truths taught by the Church. If they are deceivers, history and contemporary events make abundantly clear that everyone suffers except opponents of the Church. If they are holy and courageous men, willing to witness the truth as taught by the Church, Catholics and non-Catholics benefit. This is as true in China as it is in any other country.

The doctrines of apostolic succession and Petrine supremacy, and common sense, mandate that the pope choose Catholic bishops. Historically, some popes have made deals granting secular rulers a role in nominating bishops. As late as 1996, Pope John Paul II agreed to a process in which the Vatican forwards three bishop-candidates to the Vietnamese government, which then chooses one of the three. The critical step is the first – Hanoi can delay, but cannot substitute its own candidate.

The Chinese Communist regime under Xi Jinping presents a far greater challenge. The evidence for Xi’s malign intent is unarguable. He is targeting Catholics, Protestants, Uighur Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhists as internal fifth columns, loyal to something greater than the Communist state.

Unlike Mao Zedong in the Cultural Revolution, Xi understands he cannot simply eliminate religion. But he is heir to Mao’s belief, channeling Stalin, that religion in general, and some religions in particular, pose mortal threats to Communist authority, and must at all costs be harnessed to the state. His strategy is to terrorize, intimidate, and transform.

Accordingly, Xi employs DNA testing and facial recognition technologies to track religious and political opponents. He has installed video surveillance cameras in churches. He has imprisoned over a million Uighur Muslims in “reeducation camps,” which brainwash, terrorize, and threaten. He has pursued China’s goal of emasculating Tibetan Buddhism with population replacement and violence against Buddhist monks and nuns. He has continued the policy of murdering practitioners of Falun Gong and harvesting their organs for sale.

Protestants and Catholics who resist control by the state agencies established for that purpose (the Protestant Three-Self Movement and the Catholic Patriotic Association) suffer imprisonment, torture, and destruction of churches. Two Marian shrines were recently bulldozed. Catholic bishops and priests in the “underground” Church are increasingly targeted. Prior to the Agreement, these men were seen by at least some in the Vatican as the pope’s brigade, the loyal, courageous, suffering ecclesiastical vanguard of the Church’s witness in China, deserving of prayer and support. Such a view seems to have vanished from Rome.

Within the Chinese regime, however, there is a renewed appreciation of the dangers posed by unapproved bishops faithful to Catholic teachings on human rights and religious freedom. The Catholic Patriotic Association recently issued a detailed set of instructions to China’s bishops, priests, and lay Catholics that will render the Church little more than an arm of the Communist Party. Here’s one key passage:

The [Catholic] Church will regard promotion and education on core values of socialism as a basic requirement for adhering to the Sinicization of Catholicism. It will guide clerics and Catholics to foster and maintain correct views on history and the nation and strengthen community awareness.

Xi’s “Sinicization” policy deepens a perennial dilemma for the Church in China. The number of Chinese bishops is declining, especially those capable of speaking the truths about God and man, without which the Church is not the Church.


Since the 1950s, priests and bishops loyal to the pope and the Magisterium have generally been ordained in the underground Church, often clandestinely to avoid arrest, imprisonment, or worse. Others were appointed only with the regime’s approval, and were placed under the Catholic Patriotic Association. As underground bishops aged and died faster than they were replaced, Pope John Paul II began to accept private letters of fealty from some bishops appointed by Beijing. But until the signing of the Provisional Agreement, the Vatican refrained from granting any authority to the Communist government in the appointment of bishops,

Unfortunately, because the text of the Agreement has not been made public, it isn’t entirely clear how much authority has actually been ceded. Some reports indicate the Vatican is allowing the regime a significant role: Candidate-bishops are presented to gatherings of diocesan priests, nuns, and lay Catholics, who then vote. The winner’s name is sent to officials who may accept or reject the elected candidate. If Beijing accepts, the candidate could still be vetoed by the pope.

Such a process raises serious questions. If the Chinese control the choice of candidates, they will inevitably prove harmful to the Church. The Xi regime will certainly nominate bishops who will “Sinicize” the Church, altering its teachings and eroding its influence. A right of papal veto would provide some protection, but vetoes would seem to frustrate the Vatican’s overarching goal of increasing the numbers of bishops, period.

Given that goal, would Pope Francis veto men who were little more than Communist apparatchiks and insist on the ordination solely of holy priests faithful to the teachings of the Church? It’s worth recalling that in signing the deal he acceded to Beijing’s demand that he accept seven official bishops, some of whom had been excommunicated by earlier popes. Some reportedly are sexually promiscuous, have fathered children, and are known for “excessive support for the ruling Communist party.”  In addition, the pope agreed to require two underground bishops, loyal to the Magisterium, to step aside.

There are faint signs that the pope will retain authority to nominate bishops. Last month the first two bishops were ordained under the Agreement. Both were sanctioned by the Vatican in advance – one had secretly been approved by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. In both cases, the voting procedure outlined above was followed. Asia News reports that the initial vote took place in a hotel “under the full control of the local civil authorities.” In one case, Catholic voters reportedly assembled under the supervision of 100 police and government officials were told there was only one candidate, and that they must vote for him.

One might quibble over Catholics “voting” for their bishops, and the coercive presence of Communist officials during the vote. If these two ordinations signal, however, that the pope, not the Communists, will nominate bishop candidates, that is a good sign. But that is probably not the case. Given his draconian efforts to harness the Church to his Communist designs, it seems unlikely that Xi would agree to choose among candidates provided by Rome. Only time, or the release of the text, will tell.

In the end, the Provisional Agreement may indicate a return to the Vatican’s failed Cold War “Ostpolitik” diplomacy of the 1960s, before Pope John Paul II changed it. That diplomacy failed from a want of realism about the evil of communism. It deeply harmed the Church in parts of Eastern Europe. The Vatican was not then, and is not now, a secular power capable of changing the behavior of Communist governments through diplomacy.

And yet, the Vatican is arguably the only authority in the world constituted precisely to address the root causes of totalitarian evil, just as Pope John Paul II did in the 1980s in cooperation with President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The Holy See’s role should be now, as it was then, to press for human rights and, especially, for religious freedom for all religious communities in China.

As for China’s Catholics, the Vatican should demand nothing less than libertas ecclesiae, the freedom of the Church to witness to its adherents, to the public, and to the regime its teachings on human dignity and the common good.

It is beyond dispute that the Chinese know what they are doing. The Vatican’s charism, on the other hand, is not diplomacy, but witness to the truth about God and man.


*Image: Han Ying Fang, a 71-year-old Catholic by Lu-Nan, 1992 [Photo taken for Magnum in Shaanxi Province]

Thomas Farr is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington D.C. He was founding director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (1999-2003), and of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center (2011-18). He was an associate professor of the Practice of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service from 2007-2018.