The Pope explained his decision in a Sept. 26 letter to China’s Catholics, acknowledging the “deep and painful tensions” centered especially on the figure of the bishop as “the guardian of the authenticity of the faith and as guarantor of ecclesial communion.” He said it was “essential” to deal first with the issue of bishop appointments in order to support the continuation of the Gospel in China and to re-establish “full and visible unity in the Church.”
He acknowledged the different reactions to the provisional agreement, both from those who are hopeful and from those who might feel abandoned by the Holy See and question “the value of their sufferings endured out of fidelity to the Successor of Peter.”
Farr, speaking to the congressional subcommittee, said he is concerned the provisional agreement “will not improve the lot of Catholics in China, much less the status of religious freedom for non-Catholic religious communities.” It risks harming religious freedom and “inadvertently encouraging China’s policy of altering the fundamental nature of Catholic witness.”
“In my humble opinion as a Catholic, and an advocate for religious freedom, the Vatican’s charism is to support that witness, as Pope Saint John Paul II did in Communist Poland,” he said.
Farr thought the process for choosing Catholic bishops was comparable to “the way parliamentary candidates are approved in Iran” where theologians vet prospective candidates for their loyalty to the government.
“Is it likely that the Chinese government would forward to the Vatican the name of a bishop faithful to the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church?” Farr asked. “It seems far more likely that the bishop would be chosen at a minimum for his acquiescence to the regime, if not his fidelity to its anti-Catholic purposes.”
Johnnie Moore, a religious freedom advocate who now serves on the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom, told CNA he entirely supports “direct engagement with governments which have a checkered past when it comes to religious freedom, working together to find a better future.”
However, he thought many people outside of the Catholic community are “entirely confused by the timing and why the Holy Father agreed to – for all intents and purposes – demote faithful, persevering priests who had endured so much for so long.”
Moore, a past vice-president of communications at the evangelical Christian, Virginia-based Liberty University, is now CEO of communications firm The Kairos Company.
“Surely, (Pope Francis) could have found a way to have a meaningful relationship with the Chinese-appointed bishops without picking sides between his flock and those who’ve viciously opposed it for so long,” he said. “I’m also afraid that clever leaders in China will use this deal with the Vatican to distract the world from their resurgent, egregious mistreatment of other religious communities.”
Farr’s remarks tried to place China-Vatican relations in a historical context. In the centuries that Catholics have been in China, beginning even before missionary priest Matteo Ricci’s founding of a Jesuit mission in 1601, they have encountered “the assertion that Catholicism is incompatible with Chinese culture and must either be rooted out or adapted in ways that would change its fundamental nature.”
While Christianity became associated with European imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, against which many Chinese rebelled, it also suffered intense persecution after the Cultural Revolution after communist forces took power in 1949 under Mao Zedong.
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
At Catholic News Agency, our team is committed to reporting the truth with courage, integrity, and fidelity to our faith. We provide news about the Church and the world, as seen through the teachings of the Catholic Church. When you subscribe to the CNA UPDATE, we'll send you a daily email with links to the news you need and, occasionally, breaking news.
As part of this free service you may receive occasional offers from us at EWTN News and EWTN. We won't rent or sell your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
China’s government attempted to absorb or destroy all religion. It expelled the papal representative to China and over a decade’s time engaged in “brutal treatment” of Catholics, Protestants and other religious groups, Farr said. This intensified under the Cultural Revolution begun in the 1960s.
“Priests and nuns were tortured, murdered (some were burned alive), and imprisoned in labor camps. Lay Christians were paraded in their towns and villages with cylindrical hats detailing their ‘crimes’,” he said. Catholic clergy and laity were among the tens of millions who died “terrible deaths.”
“While Mao proved that a policy of eliminating religion is unrealistic, his successors have constantly experimented in finding the ‘correct’ way to control, co-opt, and absorb religion into the communist state,” Farr continued. Since the 1970s, China’s religious policies have had “ups and downs as new Chinese leaders adapted policies to achieve the objective of control.”
“Not all Chinese policy involves overt repression of religion,” he said. In recent decades, China’s leaders have at times supported “religious groups perceived to be capable of consolidating Beijing’s absolute power.” According to Farr, this has sometimes meant praise for non-Tibetan Chinese Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism as China’s “traditional cultures.”
“Clearly those three groups pose a lesser threat to Communist rule than do the Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Christians,” he said. “For the moment at least, it is the latter three religious communities that are the objects of continuing repression, especially the Uighurs.”
Citing State Department estimates of 70 million to 90 million Christians in China, with about 12 million Catholic, he said the growth of Chinese Christianity, especially through conversions to Protestant denominations, is “of great concern to the Chinese.”