Image: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Andrew Jarocki

“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.”

– Matthew 5:9

“The Pope?” scoffed Stalin, “And how many divisions does he have?” 

It is tempting to dismiss the Vatican, a tiny city state entirely reliant on moral suasion, as irrelevant in this era of renewed great power competition. 

However, recent papal diplomacy offers a deeply educational case study on the defining international debate of the day: to confront or collaborate with a rising China? Deter or dealmake? Hawk or dove?

In 2018, the Vatican shocked the world by announcing a Provisional Agreement with the People’s Republic of China. The appointment of Catholic bishops in China, long a bitter dispute between Pope and Party, was settled under a deal whose terms remain unknown to the public.

“What the Vatican is trying to do is build trust,” explains Rev. Micheal Agliardo, SJ, Ph.D.,

Executive Director of the US-China Catholic Association. “They want to transform the relationship from a zero-sum contest into one that will address common problems.”

The agreement has attracted equal parts hopeful praise and fierce criticism from followers throughout the global Church. The Vatican characterized the deal as “the fruit of a reciprocal rapprochement” while retired Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong complained it is “giving the flock into the mouths of wolves.”

As the two sides revisit the deal before a September expiration date, the world should reflect on it as well.

The Vatican’s dovish, collaborative approach so far offers the world three crucial lessons, for better or for worse, about a relationship with China today.

Lesson 1: The Party’s Security is National Security  

Centralized religion with a particular leader will “escalate the perception of threat on the part of the Party” notes Sarah Cook, Senior Research Analyst for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House. 

Why does a group with a pope or a dalai lama cause such worry in Beijing? 

“Giving allegiance to something higher than the Communist Party,” explains Cook, “is always the CCP’s primary concern.” 

Like any other entrant to China, the Vatican has quickly grasped the reality that it is impossible to appear unthreatening to the nation without appearing unthreatening to the party. 

(For contrast, simply observe the strong reaction in American society to President Trump’s occasional description of top military officials as “my generals.” The distinction between duty to country and duty to political leaders is much more blurred in China.)

The Church’s focus on social services to the poor and elderly in China has proved compatible with some Party doctrines, and as a result has endeared the Church to some authorities.

However, respecting the Party’s claim to be synonymous with China itself can come with a steep price. Usually an outspoken advocate of migrants and minority groups, Pope Francis has been noticeably silent on the detainment of Uighurs.

It is not only current affairs that dictate the Vatican’s careful stance towards China. Papal diplomats often remind their counterparts that the long-lived Church tends to think in terms of centuries. In China, a sense of history is equally critical. 

Lesson 2: The Importance of History 

“It will behoove people outside China to listen more and reflect on history more,” Rev. Agliardo notes, “and perhaps even listen with a third ear.”

The influence of history is ever present in the minds of Chinese policymakers, causing a deep suspicion of any outside force that smacks of colonialism from the “century of humiliation” between 1838 and 1945.

A recent white paper published by the State Council announces that China “resists the infiltration of hostile foreign forces taking advantage of religion.” Citizens are reminded that Catholicism and Protestantism were “controlled and utilized by colonialists and imperialists.” 

This helps explain the government’s determination to “sinicize” everything from religion to supply chains. Some churches have even been demolished for architecture that “looks too Western,” according to Ms. Cook of Freedom House.

For the Vatican to cooperate with and especially operate within China, understanding Chinese sensitivities toward foreign hierarchies is crucial. 

Pope Fracis’ predecessors have done well in this regard. Saint John Paul II  noted his “deep sadness for these errors and limits of the past” and asked for a new relationship in 2001. In 2007, Benedict XVI expressed his hope that once “misunderstandings of the past have been overcome…dialogue would make it possible for us to work together for the good of the Chinese People and for peace in the world.”

Since the agreement in 2018, Rev. Agliardo points out that there have been “high level symbolic gestures of friendship” between Rome and Beijing. 

There have been signs of progress on the specific matter of bishop selection. The recent ordination of a bishop in China’s Inner Mongolia region was “the first to take place in the framework of the provisional agreement” according to a statement by Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office. 

Yet, even the most dovish Vatican officials have not hoisted a “Mission Accomplished” banner. Why?

As experts and grass roots activists clarify, the reality of the Church in China has yet to match the soaring rhetoric or promising gestures on the single issue of bishop selection. 

Lesson #3: Good Will Only Goes So Far

To be sure, the Vatican’s attempt at a good relationship with the CCP is not naive. Just ask the Houston Rockets or any Australian farmer how costly it can be when the relationship with Beijing sours.

However, the reality on the ground continues to be “dramatic, across-the-board persecution” says Pastor Bob Fu, founder and president of the legal nonprofit China Aid.

Fu, who was at one time imprisoned in China for his role in an unsanctioned house church, is disheartened that priests and bishops continue to be arrested or simply disappear. 

The lack of enforcement mechanisms or any public oversight of the agreement requires the Vatican do more “soul-searching” about the actual prospects of success, says Fu.

Doves, hopeful for a breakthrough, may fixate on China as a problem of how agreements are structured. However, a hawkish retort asks why China can be trusted in any arrangement.

The 2018 agreement is a “thorough failure, both diplomatically and ecclesiastically” to George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Mr. Weigel observes that the agreement “does not seem to have modified or improved the PRC regime’s behavior,” highlighting the treatment of Hong Kong and Uighurs as proof of “classic totalitarian” aggression.  

The Vatican has clarified for the world what a collaborative relationship with China entails–namely, the ability to adapt to the Communist Party’s ego, sense of history and insecurities. However, the actual results remain underwhelming so far. 

“China is not interested in dialogue,” as Mr. Weigel states, “because China is interested in power.”

High Stakes for the Future 

Can Pope Francis’ hopeful diplomacy overcome the growing criticism and chart a path for the Church to exist more peacefully in China? His defenders argue that the deal has been limited in scope, and progress on the whole relationship requires patience beyond these baby steps. 

However, China’s rise has made the world increasingly impatient for the answer. If Francis fails to win broader concessions soon, his global audience will take away a fundamentally realist lesson: only the use of military or economic power can motivate or deter Communist China. If so, the more confrontational and hawkish voices on China will soon become the gospel truth in capitals around the world.

Andrew Jarocki is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame with a degree in PoliticaScience. He has worked in both Congressional offices and campaigns. He hails from beautiful Duluth, Minnesota. Andrew is passionate about writing on the relationship between domestic and foreign policies.

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