In a 2019 letter to the Vatican, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, a former bishop of Hong Kong, called the plans the “killing of the church in China by those who should protect it and defend it from enemies.”
Cardinal Joseph Zen, former Bishop of Hong Kong, speaks during a press conference at the Salesian House of Studies in Hong Kong on September 26, 2018, following the Vatican announcement on September 22 of an historic accord with China on the appointment of bishops in the Communist country.
Zen and other critics fear that the agreement, with the Pope’s imprimatur, puts pressure on underground believers to join the official Patriotic Church as an act in line with Francis’s wishes. It would, critics say, place their worship in the service of China’s Communist Party ideology.
The just-issued religious regulations put mechanisms in place to subsume Catholic worship into official Communist Party interests. It orders all clergy to “love the motherland, support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, support the socialist system.” Anyone who enters a church is monitored “through strict gatekeeping, verification of identity, and registration.”
“The agreement was a pretext, was an instrument in the hands of the government to persecute the church,” Zen told an Indian radio station last November.
The 2018 accord created concern in Hong Kong that Beijing may demand control of the Catholic churches there. Francis has yet to remark on the democracy protests and subsequent crackdown in Hong Kong nor the jailing of protest leaders, some of whom are Catholic.
The deal placed a chill on pro-democracy preachers. Bishop John Hon Tong, now in charge of the Hong Kong diocese, cautioned priests to be prudent in their sermons so as not to run afoul of the new National Security Law imposed by Beijing. The law, among other things, curbs acts that might undermine central government authority.
Taiwan, which has diplomatic relations with the Vatican State, viewed the accord as a means to further isolate the island from the global community and perhaps as a step toward transferring the papal nuncio – effectively the Holy See’s ambassador – from Taipei to Beijing.
The new set of regulations, some of which relate to other religions, comes in the context of systematic crackdowns on the five religious groupings officially sanctioned by China: the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Daoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement – whose three selfs refer not to the Holy Trinity but to the principles of self-governance, self-support (meaning financial independence from foreigners), and self-propagation (meaning indigenous missionary work only).
The most severe crackdown involves the roundup and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group from northwest China, into re-education concentration camps, and the destruction of mosques in Xinjiang province.
The US State department, under previous President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden, has labeled China’s treatment of Uighurs as genocide. Late last year, Pope Francis declared the Uighurs “persecuted.”
Acknowledging uneasiness over the pact, the Vatican secretary of state, Monsignor Cardinal Pietro Parolin, suggested that Vatican-Beijing rapprochement is a work in progress. On January 29, he told KTOTV, a French Catholic TV outlet, that the 2018 accord, “is just a small step from which one can begin to seek to improve the situation of the church. So, there is no claim that this is the last word. I compare this agreement to the little seed that penetrates the ground.”
The seeds have yet to bear much fruit. Only two bishops have been named under the new accord. Meanwhile, even though the Vatican canceled the excommunications of seven Patriotic Church prelates, more than two dozen bishops of the underground church remain formally illegal and await their fate at the hands of the government.
Estimates of the numbers of Chinese who belong to the underground church range from three million to 12 million. Its members have been subject to repression, even during the two-year run of the agreement.
A pair of nuns who traveled from Hong Kong to the mainland were detained last May and remain under house arrest. In the southeastern district of Yujiang non-officially authorized priests have been told not to oversee worship and the bishop there was prohibited from celebrating Mass.