This Letter is devoted to the question of the Catholic Church in China.

    The question is important because the historic “secret agreement” between the Holy See and China to regulate the relations of the Church to the Chinese Communist government — especially regarding the selection of bishops for the Church — signed on September 22, 2018, must either be re-signed and extended in September 2020, or lapse.

    What will the two parties do? No one knows, but it is worth looking at some of the issues that may play a part in the decision.

    I have asked my Assistant Editor, Christina Andres Deardurff, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College, a clear-minded writer and editor who has assisted me for the past five years, to wrap up a number of stories concerning China that are presently unfolding. Christina writes with a profound understanding of the present struggles faced by Catholic families on the “peripheries” of the Church — from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to China. Christina is the mother of 10 children and the grandmother of 15.

    A version of this story, with photos showing how churches in China are being asked to remove crosses from their roofs, will appear in the August-September issue of Inside the Vatican which will go to press in a few days.

    It would be very helpful to all of us to have your support (to subscribe, click here.) Each subscription, even if it is only $40, is a very important support for a small journal like ours. We have published for 27 years now, since 1993, but we today are confronting a peculiar challenge: the Coronavirus, and the consequent ceasing of our pilgrimages from the US to Italy and Europe… So please consider taking out a subscription!—RM.

Photo of Chinese altar boys: Chinese acolytes pray at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, a government-sanctioned Catholic church in Beijing. (Mark Schiefelbein / Associated Press)

    China allegedly hacks into the Vatican even as it prepares to renew bishops’ agreement

    By Christina Deardurff

    The website, which covers religious freedom issues in China, recently reported on the Chinese Communist Party’s now-two-year-old campaign to replace religion in the lives of the Chinese people with Xi Jinping’s “Civilization Practice Stations for a New Era,” installed in converted churches, temples and “ancestral halls” all over the country.

    A propaganda video shown to villagers in Jiangxi province, for example, tells of the “successful transformation of Christians through education,” including the story of one unregistered Protestant church: “‘After a month’s work, the church director proactively dissolved the congregation of this religious venue. Its members were later registered and transformed,’ the film’s narrator explains, adding that ‘more and more believers are now being transformed into practitioners’ of such civilization stations.” (Link)

    This is the environment in which the Roman Catholic Church is trying to operate in China, via an undisclosed agreement with the Chinese government on the naming of bishops, signed the same year that the “Civilization Practice” campaign began, 2018, and due in September to be renewed — or scrapped.

    Now comes news which may very well affect the decision to sign or scrap. (For the importance of this agreement, see link).

    According to UCA News (Union of Catholic Asian News), China has been caught hacking into Vatican computers (link to the original story):

    By Michael Sainsbury, July 29, 2020

    (UCA NEWS) — China has been accused of hacking Vatican computers as well as those in the Diocese of Hong Kong and other Catholic organizations from May.

    The hacking appears to be an attempt to gain an advantage in talks between the Vatican and China, due to resume as early as this week, about a fresh deal on the appointment of bishops.    

    US data monitoring group Recorded Future and its Insikt Group used sophisticated data analysis tools to uncover the cyber espionage.

    “From early May 2020, the Vatican and the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong were among several Catholic Church-related organizations that were targeted by RedDelta, a Chinese-state sponsored threat activity group tracked by Insikt Group,” the Recorded Future report stated.

    “This series of suspected network intrusions also targeted the Hong Kong Study Mission to China and the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), Italy. These organizations have not been publicly reported as targets of Chinese threat activity groups prior to this campaign.”

    (End, UCA NEWS report)

    The UCA report explicitly mentions the Vatican agreement, as well as the Vatican’s reaction to Hong Kong’s new and draconian security laws, as areas of interest to the CCP:

    “The suspected intrusion into the Vatican would offer RedDelta insight into the negotiating position of the Holy See ahead of the deal’s September 2020 renewal,” the report said.

    It added that targeting of the Hong Kong Study Mission and its Catholic diocese could also “provide a valuable intelligence source for both monitoring the diocese’s relations with the Vatican and its position on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement amidst widespread protests and the recent sweeping Hong Kong national security law.”

    The Vatican-China agreement stipulated, among other things, that the Chinese government would select the country’s new bishops but that final approval would belong to the Holy See.

    The agreement also regularized China’s previously government-appointed bishops (those of the government-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, as opposed to the “underground” Chinese Catholic Church, which has always maintained communion with the Holy See), allowing many of them to be recognized by the Vatican.

    But according to the South China Post, the agreement has to date failed to produce results in new bishop appointments: “No new heads have been chosen for the 52 bishop-less dioceses in the two years since the agreement was signed, according to sources with knowledge of the negotiations, who declined to be named.”

    The intention of the agreement, its architects said, was to bring unity to Catholics in China, fractured by membership in two competing versions of the Church.

    The hope seemed to be that Vatican-Chinese government cooperation would lead to the eventual amalgamation of all Catholics into one Chinese Catholic Church, retaining enough Vatican affiliation to remain Catholic while still meeting the government’s requirements of Sinicization.

Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, (left)

Cardinal Joseph Zen, (right)

One of the agreement’s architects, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, told an interviewer June 7, “We have to see what to do after this [September 2020] deadline. I think we should probably reconfirm it for one or two years.” (link)

    But Hong Kong’s retired archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken critic of the agreement, warns that the 2018 agreement has further marginalized the faithful of the Vatican-loyal “underground” church and increased pressure on Catholics to join the government’s Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association by pointing to the Vatican’s acquiescence to its demands for oversight of choice of bishops.

    Cardinal Zen said of the situation in a March 2020 blog post that “during the last 20 years, because of the wrong policy of the Holy See in dealing with the Church in China, pursued by a group of people who dared even not to follow the line of the Pope, the underground community was more and more like abandoned, considered inconvenient, almost as an obstacle to unity, while in the community officially recognized by the Government the ‘opportunists’ grow more and more numerous, fearless and defiant because encouraged by people inside and around the Vatican, intoxicated by their illusions of the Ostpolitik (“Eastern policy”).” (link)

    The deal, whose exact contents remain a secret, has so far resulted in five “underground” bishops being installed by the CPA.

    However, Catholic clergy in China are required by law to “register” with the government, and many clergy of the “underground” church began to appeal to Rome to ask whether they should do so.

    The registration also contained an affirmation of the independence, autonomy and self-administration of the Church in China — part of a campaign of “Sinicization” of all religions in order, ostensibly, to root out foreign influence in society.

    In response, the Vatican issued a set of directives in September 2019, advising priests that they may, in good conscience, sign the registration and statement, but including a further recommendation to add a sentence affirming respect for authentic Catholic doctrine, if possible.

    The Vatican also said that no priest should be forced to sign the statement if his interpretation of it was opposed to his conscience.

    Unfortunately, examples of clergy who have been hounded and detained by the government for refusing to register have been documented, including Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin of the diocese of Mindong. According to Asia News, Bishop Guo was placed under supervision of two state security officials in November of 2019 and visited daily in an attempt to force him to sign the registration. He finally escaped and went into hiding.

    The majority of the diocese’s priests had also refused to sign.

    Although Pope Francis has commented little on the specific issue of Hong Kong (other than to pray for China during a late May Regina Caeliaddress: “Dear Catholic brothers and sisters in China, I wish to assure you that the universal Church, of which you are an integral part, shares your hopes and supports you in trials”) it was noted in the world’s press that he had dropped a reference to Hong Kong, and a plea for religious freedom there, that had been included in the prepared text of his message at his Sunday public Angelus on July 5.

    The omitted passage ran: “I hope therefore that all the people involved will know how to face the various problems with a spirit of far-sighted wisdom and authentic dialogue. This requires courage, humility, non-violence, and respect for the dignity and rights of all. I thus express the desire that societal freedom, and especially religious freedom, be expressed in full and true liberty, as indeed various international documents provide for it.”

    The text was in the prepared version of the address handed out to journalists that morning, but the Pope simply did not speak the words, leaving them out.

    “The curious omission of those sentiments led to speculation that the Pope’s message—mild as it was—was suppressed out of concern that it would provoke an angry reaction from sensitive officials in Beijing. The Vatican has been extremely careful to maintain friendly relations with the Chinese regime, and has avoided public expressions of concern about threats to religious liberty—both in Hong Kong and on the mainland,” reported Catholic News Agency.

As Cardinal Zen has said of the position of Cardinal John Tong Hon, 80 (left), the current interim head of the Diocese of Hong Kong and on record as supporting the new security laws, it is “a tricky situation” for all concerned.

    “On the one hand, it will be a lot of trouble if we don’t support the government,” Zen said. “We never know what they will do to our Church. On the other hand, [Tong] disappointed many within the Church by giving his support.”

    Similarly, the Vatican is faced with the question “How do we fearlessly stand up for each one of Christ’s faithful ones, and risk provocation of a soulless communist dictatorship like China’s, and yet bring no harm, no increased persecution or vengeful destruction, to an already beleaguered people?”

    Meanwhile, the credibility of the Christian West — even its very will to survive — is being called into question as Marxist-style destabilization of society proceeds apace.

    Anti-Western-civilization rhetoric is now the norm; violent protest, destruction, arson and even murder occur on a weekly basis in Western countries where the creeping political and social anarchy have been preceded by moral anarchy for decades: perhaps it is no surprise that a decadent West, groaning under the strain of its own sensual and material excess, seems to be breaking apart.

    And not unrelated to the issue of sensual and material excess is the history, in the past decades of China-Vatican relations, of the involvement of now-disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. As has become evident, McCarrick was an orchestrator of and participant in high-level diplomatic meetings between Chinese and Vatican officials, in later years in a more unofficial capacity, but nevertheless influential. What mark, if any, did McCarrick leave on the negotiations leading to the 2018 Vatican-China agreement that Cardinal Zen spurns?

    We hope to delve into this subject in a later report.

    Against this backdrop, it is difficult to predict how Rome will navigate the dangerous waters of communism in a burgeoning global economic and political power like China. But it is also difficult to imagine how it can be done without prayer and sacrifice, as the spirit of atheistic communism seems to be one of those spirits of which Christ said, “This kind can be cast out only by prayer and fasting.”

    And so we issue a call to all Christians to pray:

    —for the Church in China, that is being targeted, apparently as never before during the reign of Xi Jinping, and

    —for the Chinese people, from whom the communist government is attempting to steal their souls.

    Pray also for the Pope and all his counselors, and, not least, for the once-Christian West, which is losing not only its spirit, but its own will to exist.

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