The Vatican’s China deal unravels further

Does the Vatican seriously believe that a totalitarian regime is truly interested in “dialogue and collaboration”?

A man waves China's flag as Pope Francis leads his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 22, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The latest self-inflicted blow to the Vatican’s China policy came in mid-July, when the Holy See announced that Pope Francis had “recognized” Bishop Joseph Shen Bin as Bishop of Shanghai — despite the fact that the bishop had been “transferred” to China’s most important and prestigious diocese by the Xi Jinping regime, not by the pope. A few days later, America published a lengthy analysis of this Roman kowtow by Gerard O’Connell, its Vatican correspondent. O’Connell, for his part, drew on what Vatican News described as an interview with secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin, but what was actually an auto-interview, the cardinal having sent the pre-written Q&A to the various instruments of Vatican Media for publication.

One striking revelation in that self-interrogation came when Cardinal Parolin noted that two previous transfers of bishops within China “were carried out without the involvement of the Holy See,” and said that “this way of proceeding appears not to take account of the spirit of dialogue and of collaboration established by the Vatican party and the Chinese party over the years.”

To which one could only respond, what “spirit of dialogue and collaboration”? Does the Vatican seriously believe that a totalitarian regime — one that conducts the world’s most extensive surveillance of its own population, builds genocidal concentration camps for ethnic and religious minorities, blocks international investigation of its role in the global breakout of COVID-19, and publicly announces that all religions in China must be “Sinicized” (i.e., subordinated to the regime’s concept of what China is and should be) — is  truly interested in “dialogue and collaboration”? Even if that naïve assumption had been the Vatican’s starting premise in the negotiations that led to the 2018 agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, shouldn’t China’s subsequent violations of that agreement and its crackdown on Catholics in Hong Kong and elsewhere have prompted a critical re-examination of the premise?

Has the Holy See learned nothing from the behavior of totalitarian regimes throughout history, all of which, without exception, have sought to subordinate Christian communities to regime ideology, be that Nazism, Leninism or “Xi Jinping Thought”?

I understand the constraints of diplomatic language in a difficult negotiation. Still, there is something self-demeaning and strategically unwise (not to mention morally unsavory) in taking diplo-speak to the extreme of saying, as the cardinal did, that the conversation between the Vatican and Beijing would continue, “trusting in the wisdom and good will of all.” What “wisdom” or “good will” has Beijing shown since 2018? Is its current program of bringing the Catholic clergy of Hong Kong to the mainland for instruction in Sinicization an expression of good will, or an exercise in coercion and intimidation?

The same inability — or stubborn refusal — to grasp the nature of a regime like Xi Jinping’s was evident in the cardinal’s hope that “adequate statutes” would be developed for a Chinese bishops’ conference. But imagine, for the sake of argument, that statutes “adequate” by the standards of Roman canon lawyers were developed, and that a Chinese bishops’ conference were created. Considering the Xi Jinping regime’s record since the Vatican-China agreement was signed in 2018, how could a reasonable person imagine that those statutes would be honored, and that the conference would function according to what Cardinal Parolin called its “ecclesial nature and pastoral mission”? How many times does one have to get gut-punched before recognizing that one’s “dialogue partner” is not playing by Marquis of Queensberry rules?

Then there was Cardinal Parolin’s call for the Chinese authorities to establish a “stable liaison office” for the Holy See in mainland China that would make the Vatican/Beijing dialogue “more fluid and fruitful:” a request, Gerard O’Connell reported, that the Chinese regime has rebuffed before while demanding that the Holy See close its “study office” in Hong Kong. What purpose would this “stable liaison office” serve? Is it the opening wedge to the diplomatic holy grail long sought by certain Italian Vatican diplomats: a Holy See embassy in Beijing? But that would require severing Holy See diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the first Chinese democracy in history. And fantasies of a Vatican “place at the table” notwithstanding, an embassy would add nothing to the Holy See’s leverage with the Beijing regime while further muffling the Vatican’s public voice.

There are few enthusiasts for the current China policy in the College of Cardinals, and an examination of the policy is imperative during the next papal interregnum. That discussion should begin with the understanding that, however noble its intentions, the current policy is a failure that is damaging the Church’s moral authority and witness.

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About George Weigel 459 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. We’re witnessing in real-time the rise of the equivalent of the Anglican Church in England vis-à-vis the Protestant Reformation – this time in Asia by the atheist, communist China cabal. Don’t expect a Council of Trent as a response. Expect aggiornamento, agreeability, and acquiescence from the complicit heart of the liberation theologian from South America, Jorge Bergoglio. This is, yet again, another unmistakable sign that the words of Our Lady at Lasalette have been realized: “Rome will lose the faith”. Please, my fellow Catholics who value your soul and daily strive to walk the narrow road to salvation, find a Latin Mass, find one that offers you some insulation from this madness. If you happen to agree with this pope, I encourage you to rethink your mental framework. This man is supposed to LEAD you to Christ, not come between you and Christ! This man is more pantheist than Deist, more Pachamama than Blessed Virgin Maria. He’s navigating the Barque of Peter into the rocky shoreline. Jump into the life boat of a Latin Mass community and don’t look back lest you become a pillar of salt. Yes, pray for the man, offer reparation for the man, fast for the man, don’t let the man keep you from following Christ. He’s taken the Novus Ordo Missae (New Order of the Mass) and given it the meaning of the Missa Novi Ordanisi (Mass of the New Order). Resist him!

    • You are right about resisting the Pontiff Francis.

      Very early on in the Francis regime, David Warren of Canada, who writes about Catholic and current affairs on his website “Essays in Idleness” (also a regular contributor to essays at TCT), penned an essay summing up what he sensed was “on offer” to the faithful from the Pontiff Francis, he put it this way (and I have the words quite closely):

      ‘The Francis pontificate is offering us all a choice: it’s either him or Jesus. I’m choosing Jesus.’

    • Mark;
      When you say “Resist him!” – to me that phrase, although admirable, doesn’t quite fit. Instead I would say – hunker down and wait him out – We’ll get through this. I hate to say something like that about a Pope, but – he is trying to abolish the Latin Mass, he gives a public audience to a ‘Priest’ who openly opposes the Church’s position on same-sex ‘marriage’, his lack of respect for his 2 immediate predecessors is painfully obvious, he gives a public audience to American ‘catholics’ (small c) – Pelosi and Biden – who are openly pro-abortion in direct opposition to long-settled Church dogma, and the list goes on and on.

      I live in Maine and – Latin Mass advocates in Maine – Google Latin Mass Maine and there you will find places where the Latin Mass is celebrated. Be of good faith – we’ll get through this.

      Prayer request – I lost a friend last week – Martin Spahn, a member of St.Michael’s Parish in Augusta – he drowned in a kayaking accident. Please pray for him or even better – have a Mass offered for him.

      We have lost a good man.

      We’ll get through this, for now – just hunker down and wait him out.

      • Dear Terence,
        Thank you for your encouragement. I fear our dauntless, dear, Jesuit, liberation theologian has structured the College of Cardinals to ensure the next enclave gives rise to his own kind. As it now stands, there is a 70% chance of a Francis repeat. It doesn’t give me warm, fuzzy feelings. Pivoting away from the drifting Barque, yes, be most assured of my prayers for your friend, out Brother in Christ. May he rest in peace and may the holy and perpetual light of Almighty God lead him to the harbor of eternal joy!

      • The current problems in the church did not start with Francis, he is just fulfilling the spirit of VII. Catholics who know and practice the faith have been hunkering down for several decades.

        • Pope Pius XII was highly criticized for his communication with the Nazi Regime. In some form the Catholic Church has survived thru many cultures and regimes. Thru the Inquisition, under Roman rule. She will survive and yes a bit different than we loved in the 50s with our mantillas and kneeling at the communion rail.

          • Dear Anne, unless we get back to kneeling at the communion rail and wearing our Sunday BEST (for God), including veils; WE’RE DOOMED. In fact, there is only one Mass worth attending and that IS the TLM. To stay with the NO is to embrace a sub-catholicism and a Mass with so obvious a plethora of defects that, at best, it simply offends the real presence in the Host, at worse, it challenges that reality completely.

  2. The Vatican needs to stick to its spiritual mandate. The Pope is a spiritual leader as Vicar of Christ, representing the Kingdom of God. Anything the hierarchy does that touches on the lay sphere is a major danger zone, often leading to calamities, clericalism, cronyism, corruption and confusion. Worse, the more the hierarchy drifts away from clerical leadership, the more the spiritual work of Christ is neglected. Witness:
    1. Negotiations: The Vatican looks like fools (not in the good sense;)
    2. Diplomacy: Ukraine efforts are literally dangerous. The Sant’Egidio crowd are bumbling at best. “I’m helping!”
    3. Politics: Think only of the US Bishops efforts to lobby in Washington or Austin. What political party respects them?
    4. Investments: Criminally incompetent and stupid. Much of Wall Street is more transparent and virtuous!
    5. Judicial: Watching them prosecute fraud is a sitcom. But who is laughing at the Rupnik injustice?
    6. Safe Environment: After decades of devastating disclosures, insurance is often still the first thought.
    7. Construction: Everything takes too long, is overpriced and feeds endless graft.
    8. Legal: Diocese often pay more per hour for legal help than S&P 500 Companies.
    9. Administration: It is rare to find a well run diocese or parish.
    10. Charities: It is often a sinful waste of resources to donate.
    11. Education: Public schools produce better outcomes. Time for transparent, lay driven entrepreneurial solutions.

    What else!? None of these tasks has to do with being successors of the Apostles, our spiritual fathers.

    • You’re describing the view already observed through the eyes of Pope Francis. Something akin to the photo in the TWITTER link I post here.

      About it you say “spiritual” and so does he. He stresses dialogue but the dialoguing does not admit what is excluded. This is “spiritual” as well since “eventual spiritual success”, or viz., “spiritual fruitfulness”, will prove it true.

      And so it goes. One can pray for God’s will to be done. Their un-spiritual idea that you must be on “Francis’ side” in order not to be bitter will not sustain.

  3. Part of the Vatican myopia is the additional premise that China and the Church are “walking together” (synodality = sinodality?) according to the long view of history…as if the current Chinese regime is in step with long Chinese history, rather than an overlaid Western heresy imported from a post-Christian West (mandarin Marxism).

    Historically, we now might as well take a sharp look at the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64), which in recent and transitional history (a “paradigm shift”!) took up to 20 million lives through combat and starvation (nearly 40 times the loss of life in our Civil War of 1861-65).

    The insurrectionary cult leader, Hung Hsui-ch’uan, had been partly trained in Christianity (under the prominent missionary Issachar J. Roberts) and imagined himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Part of his failure to overturn the fading Manchu Dynasty and capture Beijing is pinned on the eventual military fragmentation of his movement—including one of his generals who fancied himself to be the Holy Spirit also working in history.

    The lesson here? Partly the comingling of weird misunderstandings with the historical Incarnation of the Second Person of the Triune One…Not unlike a similar compendium pluralism of misunderstandings under the 7th-century Muhammad (who is said to have been influenced, in part, by a schismatic monk, “Bahira”). And who later rolled parts of the Pentateuch, and Monothelite and Nestorian distortions into his homegrown, anti-pagan and anti-Trinitarian, Qur’anic monotheism.

    The accomplished Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin gave a name for such scavenger-hunt incoherence: “chaotic syncretism.” How, then, for the perennial Catholic Church to leaven concretely a disintegrating world—but without the Gingerbread Man climbing on the back of the fox?

    Not going so well—not, as Weigel explains, under the Chinese “provisional agreement;” nor in engaging post-Christian Secularism in the West; nor in a broader and possibly too-naturalistic “pluralism” of religions;…Nor even with internal Synodality, wherein the liminary Cardinal Hollerich can signal—without rebuke—that the “sociological-scientific foundation” of sound moral theology “is no longer correct” and is ready to be overturned.

    Yet another square circle of scale-independent, chaotic syncretism: Hollerich’s theological transgenderism!

  4. Reading this informative piece as well as Matthew Hoffman’s article on the Church in Mexico can leave one depressed and frankly angry. Betrayal of Chinese Catholics through pusillanimous appeasement of a totalitarian dictatorship and Francis sending the Lavender Mafia to Mexico to force a surrender of the Hierarchy there to the secular culture on the issue of gay marriage and even on abortion. Just seems to remind us that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ which sometimes throughout history is not led by or inclusive of the Vatican.

    • I agree. And additionally distressing and outrageous is the fact that the Chinese government is currently “rewriting” the Bible to make it more reflective of Communist ideology. For instance, in the story of the woman being stoned, Jesus is depicted as being one of those throwing stones.

      I am not sure who the genius was who thought the Chinese government could be trusted with Church business and influence (and American business and influence, for that matter), but it is clear even to this high school educated lay American that it was a really stupid move.

  5. Yes, obviously the Pontiff Francis, his Secretary of State Eminence Parolin, et al, definitely believe in “the spirit of dialogue and collaboration” with the Communist Party of China.

    We know this for explicit reasons given by the Francis Pontificate:
    A. Eminence Parolin was made Secretary of State to accomplish the “achievement” of “the Secret Vatican Accord with China.”
    B. Excellency Sanchez-Sorondo, agent of Pontiff Francis, (likewise from Buenos Aries), in 2018 (and apparently for perpetuity), declared on behalf of Pontiff Francis: “those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese…China is evolving very well…you cannot think that the China of today is the China of John Paul II or the Russia of the Cold War.”
    C. ex-Eminence McCarrick was “re-habilitated” by Pontiff Francis to help Eminence Parolin bring to fruition the great achievement of “the Secret Vatican Accord with China.” And just to underscore how committed ex-Eminence McCarrick and Eminence Parolin and the Vatican Secretariat of Stste bureaucracy were to the long Vatican march toward the achievement of “the Secret Vatican Accord with China,” it is worth noting that for years, the Archdiocese of Washington website would brag about McCarrick’s repeated trips to China, basking in how important a role he was playing for the Secretariat of State.
    D. And let’s put a bow on this by recalling that when the elderly Cardinal Zen travelled to Rome to speak with the Pontiff Francis, the Pontiff Francis refused to meet and speak with Cardinal Zen.

    And also, it is illuminating to know that some 20 or so years ago, shortly before or after “retiring” as Archbishop of Washington, McCarrick, in a guest appearance/talk at The Catholic Information Center of Washington, is reported by Catholics in the audience to have stunned them by going off topic and suggesting it was time for the Catholic Church to formally accept the Chinese Patriotic Church, in lieu of the Underground Church.

    So yes, they really believe in the Chinese Communist Party.

    Really, really believe in it…

  6. Mark, I agree with your premise and thoughts. Very well written. However, he is the pope and there are too many Catholics today (and more developing) that are ignoring the teachings of the Church because of the failure of the bishops to address the scandals that have and are occurring. I had to address this issue with Catholics would did not like what Benedict XVI was teaching and remind them that he was the pope. By the way, I attend a Latin Mass.

    • I am no sedavacantist. That said, it sure seems like Pope Jorge has left the seat himself: no mass at the Lateran since the Pacha Mama was placed on the holy high altar, no papal apartment, no pope mobile, don’t call him the “Vicar of Christ” and whatever you do don’t kiss the papal ring. Indeed, unless you want a scolding and a smart slap across the hand, you’d better NOT kiss the papal ring. What are we to so with that? He seems to be his own sedavacantist – more cognitive dissonance coming from Rome. Its discouraging. I pray for him, I fast for him, I make reparations for him – he doesn’t come between ME and CHRIST and never will. I won’t allow that to happen. Deo Gratias!

  7. I see you’re angry George, rightfully so, but you still can’t or refuse to identify the source.
    In your effusive praise of Francis, early in his pontificate, as a man of extraordinary brilliance, I suppose you didn’t anticipate boneheaded remarks from him like, it takes a hundred years to understand China, as his way of saying don’t bother me with everything that’s going badly with the sham agreement or the persecution of Catholics, especially the persecution and kangaroo trial of the saintly Cardinal Zen, whom Francis insulted rather than defended. You’ve never been wrong in your assessments. (Of course, Trump was more pro-abort than Hillary Clinton. You were so wise in trashing the most pro-life, speaking of legal effect and actual lives saved, than any human being in history.)
    You say, “Has the Holy See learned nothing from the behavior of totalitarian regimes throughout history, all of which, without exception, have sought to subordinate Christian communities to regime ideology?” Why ask anyone as non-specific as the Holy See? Ask Francis, the man who gets weepy of the death of tyrants. But you never name the source. Afraid of losing your papal apartment? Francis has praised Marxist graven images and advocated for globalist tyranny throughout his pontificate. And he has made it clear he regards such things as defined Catholic moral doctrines as, to use the infantile word, “backwardist” museum pieces of “ideology” for the mentally ill, and those who believe them in the West little different than those being trampled on in China. Until you develop T fortitude and get busy faulting the source, your complaints are just straw.

    • Edward is right, Mr. Weigel. You still cannot bring yourself to name the real problem in the Vatican. It’s the one who appoints the diplomats, names the cardinals, approves bishop nominations, makes the foolish statements, consistently disparages the faithful, hops on every western European progressive crusade, loves giving interviews to atheist reporters who consistently “misquote” him, doesn’t have the time of day for cardinals who dare to question, is all smiles with the likes of Biden, and signed off on atheist communists appointing/assigning bishops. It goes on and on and on. And you are still gagged. Why? You can bloviate all day, sir, but you’re losing credibility every time you chicken out of naming the real culprit. What are you afraid of losing? Dinner with a cardinal? Insider connections at the Vatican? A lot more is at stake. We are losing the Church, my man. Time to man up.

  8. “The same inability… to grasp the nature of a regime like Xi Jinping’s…” Or does this papal administration have a Marxist leaning that compels its interest in a state model which it prefers to capitalism. Do Vatican officials feel that they have no heavy lifting to do on the economic (or social) side of China, just some religious finetuning that makes them willing to compromise on the episcopal selections because once that gets worked out everything else will fall into place. I am certainly no expert in this area, but it is difficult otherwise grasp their approach, as Mr. Weigel notes, unless the Vatican is favorable toward the political culture of China.

  9. Soon Peking will be invading Taiwan. Millions will die on the battlefield and in the Communist gulags on the mainland. This Vatican will stand in horror, offer their sincerest condolences but will they abrogate the flawed arrangement that left a dictator regime in control of the Chinese Catholic Church? Of course not. That’s how Peronists operate. Maybe they’ll send the new CDF guy there to enter into a kissing dialogue.

  10. This is another example of why the Church is in deep trouble, no sense of priorities and leaders who are mere bureaucrats rather than apostles. In the meantime, many wonder why there are fewer serious Catholics.

  11. Why would anyone assume that the agreement with China is “unraveling”? I think it is playing out exactly as Bergoglio wishes. Does he not have a highly placed cardinal who praised the Chinese system as being more “Christian” than western capitalism? The Vatican is in no way concerned about what happens to Christians in China.

    • Agree 100%.

      Pontiff Francis and Eminence Parolin and the appalling Secretariat of State bureaucrat-careerists are interested in their relationship with power players.

      They are too important to waste their time with the “deplorables” of the Underground Church and the “backward ists” like Cardinal Zen.

      They prefer to dialogue with Herod, rather than stand with the small fry like John the Baptist.

  12. It’s quite astonishing.

    In issue after issue, involving parties as disparate as the German episcopacy, a Jesuitical mosaicist and the totalitarian Chinese government, Bergoglio’s Dark Vatican seems *never* to invoke the memory, the teachings or the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    I wonder why that is…

  13. To me the secret agreement is more accurately called the China-Vatican agreement. History has shown that the Vatican is clearly the junior and inferior partner to this agreement. As I recall the Pope refused to dialog with the Cuban dissidents.

  14. Living three years in Shanghai, I saw the short leash on which the local Church was kept by the regime. This ecclesiastical policy is unrealistic.

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