Since his elevation to the papacy in 2013 Pope Francis has continued the Church’s staunch defense of religious freedom and human rights for all, a key theme of every pope since Dignitatis Humanae. As such, even as the Church’s moral authority has suffered in other areas and veered from what many might consider its proper role, the Holy See remains the most important international guardian of the universal, inalienable rights proclaimed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is regularly and deliberately violating this universal declaration today, as it restricts freedoms of speech, movement, association, and, most pertinent to the Holy See, freedom of religion.
China has successfully used the accord to silence the Vatican and the Holy Father even as President Xi Jinping carries out his plan of absorbing all China’s religions into the state.
This important legacy, and the role of the Catholic Church in defending inalienable rights, is gravely imperiled by the Vatican’s decision to renew the Sino-Vatican accord. Signed in 2018, the accord has utterly failed to achieve its stated goals of unifying the Chinese Church into one, speeding the appointment of Vatican-approved bishops, and normalizing the lives of Chinese Catholics. Instead, since 2018 Beijing has increased its persecution of Chinese bishops and priests, the bulldozing of countless churches, and the cowing of lay Catholic faithful. Beijing has, for the most part, ignored Vatican wishes on the appointment of bishops. Some 50 Chinese sees remain vacant — a matter of indifference (at best) to the communists, but a crisis for the Catholic faithful.
Unfortunately, this is one of many agreements that the CCP has manipulated or ignored in recent years. The recent National Security Law in Hong Kong has resulted in the imprisonment of Catholic lay advocates for democracy. Protests against this law earlier this year drew crowds of over a million to the streets in opposition to policies that would weaken Hong Kong’s autonomy. This sweeping new law allows for warrantless searches, imposes maximum sentences of life in prison for dissenters, and stifles freedom of speech, of religion, and of the right to peacefully protest.
It is clear that China has successfully used the accord to silence the Vatican and the Holy Father even as President Xi Jinping carries out his plan of absorbing all China’s religions, especially Catholicism, into the state. Xi’s goal is to remove the last real vestige of internal opposition to communist rule — religious citizens and their communities, who have a profound allegiance to something or someone greater than the communist state. Domestic consolidation of power is a classical move by an autocrat like Xi, whose strategy is to increase Chinese power in the Pacific region and in the world.
The accord has also lamentably silenced the Holy Father as other Chinese religious communities are brutalized. The Chinese attack on Uighur Muslims is in effect a 21st-century version of Mao’s cultural revolution. Some one million Muslims have been thrown into detention camps, tortured, and subjected to “reeducation.” For the head of the Roman Catholic Church to allow anyone to believe that his silence on this savagery has been purchased by the accord is a scandal that goes beyond China.
Whatever the terms of the accord, which at this writing remain secret, the Vatican must — for the sake of the Church and its own moral authority — find its voice in the identification and rebuke of evil, and of evil acts, wherever they occur. The Catholic Church and its claims about God and man cannot afford anything less.
Francis Rooney was elected to represent Florida’s 19th Congressional District in 2016. Prior to serving in Congress, Rooney served as United States Ambassador to the Holy See from 2005 to 2008. Thomas Farr is President of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C.