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A Moral Balancing Act: The Vatican’s Deal with the CCP

By Maggie Baughman ‘21

In late September, the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finalized an agreement that both allows for the Vatican to regain some degree of legitimate access to Chinese Catholics, and for the CCP to gain the Pope’s stamp of approval on state-nominated Catholic bishops. The deal can serve as a case study in Xi Jinping’s “Sinicization,” a process of altering ideologies, products, or other foreign imports to make them compatible with the Chinese socialist ideology, asserting a degree of CCP control over the foreign organization seeking a presence in Chinese society. In fact, this deal suggests a specific set of steps that the CCP regularly undertakes to force Western organizations (specifically businesses or nonprofits dependent on access to China such as tech companies, movie studios, universities, scholars, or aid organizations) to the negotiating table.

To examine what “Sinicization” means for the compromises Western organizations have to make to gain or sustain access to China, we can look at the complexities of the Pope’s deal with the CCP as an illustrative example of the contexts in which Western actors are compelled to make such compromises, and the nature of the sacrifices they must make to gain access to China. The moral sacrifices the Vatican chose to make – bluntly labelled “selling out” by various Western media agencies and Catholics in mainland China and Hong Kong – may have more nuanced implications, as proposed in a basic outline of the moral costs and benefits, which may be used to understand the choices made by other Western actors attempting to negotiate with the CCP. These “moral costs” can be more broadly understood as sacrifices of principles and ideals central to the organization’s value system, mission statement, or purpose, which allows for the translation of a “moral” code to a for-profit organization.

The first aspect of the agreement to consider is its political context, which is crucial to understanding both the urgency of the deal, and why any act of compromise at present can be framed as a “betrayal.” This deal comes at a fraught time for religious communities in China, including Catholics, who have experienced a severe tightening of restrictions on religious practice in conjunction with unprecedented implementation efforts. The sweeping scope of these religious activity laws has been the legal basis and policy impetus for much of the religious crackdown visible in China over the last year, most visibly the targeting of underground “house churches,” including the largest Protestant house church in China, and the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims (an issue with religious links, but largely identified as an ethnic and cultural conflict with religious extremism posed as an excuse). The legislation covers every aspect of religious organizations and their regulation, with notable clauses providing basis for financial crackdowns, interference with “large-scale religious activity,” even legalized groups, and the demolition of houses of religious groups “due to the needs of public interest.” It is in this climate, where government officials have been encouraged to crack down on religious activity, especially underground activity, that the Vatican and the CCP entered this most recent round of talks.

It appears that the increased level of conflict between Catholics in China and the CCP can be connected to the impetus to arrive at a negotiating table – the talks began in February, the month that the new religious regulations took effect. The increased repression of Catholics signaled a need for the Vatican to intervene – an act that may prove to have beneficial implications for the protection of Chinese Catholics, who can now rely on a legal relationship with the Pope for protection. The sequence of events, however, may suggest that the CCP has an incentive to crack down on vulnerable populations to draw international actors to the negotiating table. Without a crackdown, the Vatican would have had no push to compromise with China. Additionally, the Vatican’s choice to compromise immediately abandons the religious resistors who fought CCP oversight with papal blessing – with the Pope ordaining secret bishops and communicating with them in regards to their duties in China – for decades. This deal suggests that, in the short term, heightened political tensions may push actors to compromise moral standards in order to ensure a degree of legitimacy or influence (however limited) in China. However, the long term implications of making these deals under pressure may serve to incentivize CCP crackdowns on vulnerable populations. In essence, “Sinicization” may happen more often under pressure, but have more long-term consequences in these contexts.

Secondly, we can look at the contents of the deal as a reference point for what “Sinicization” means in practical terms. The implications of the deal for both sides are important to fully understand, but given that the text remains confidential, only speculation has been available so far. The rough outlines of the agreement appear to be that the CCP will have the right to nominate bishops for the Chinese Catholic Church, which the Vatican will then have the right to approve or veto – this much has been confirmed by a variety of Western media sources. The Pope’s immediate confirmation of seven CCP-nominated bishops, including two who are deputy chairmen of the CPCA and BCCCC (state-run Catholic organizations historically independent of the Vatican), suggests the veracity of this hypothesis.

The contents of the deal suggest that “Sinicization,” like most forms of authoritarian compromise, will inevitably serve the interests of both actors, but the effects on the Chinese population are harder to deduce. In this case, the deal evidently serves the interests of both sides – the Vatican, in normalizing relations with China, reclaims a level of control over some 10 million Catholics, while the CCP not only gains the Vatican’s stamp of approval, which legitimizes its previously independent Catholic organizations, but will likely receive help from the Pope in forcing “underground” churches to accept CCP-approved bishops. However, the implications of the deal on the overall welfare of the Chinese Catholic community are less certain.

It is also clear that “Sinicization” requires a specific set of compromises – the acceptance of CCP oversight and censorship, the role of CCP actors in mediating messages to the Chinese public, and the moderation of message and language to become compatible with not only authoritarianism, but also the specific requirements of “socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” the CCP adaptation of Marxism-Leninism devised by Mao Zedong. Any organization that wants access to China will by necessity accept these “Sinicization” guidelines, or risk expulsion and condemnation by the CCP, losing all access to the Chinese populace.

The implications of the Vatican’s compromise with the CCP will not be truly manifest until the full text of the agreement is publicly released, and the Vatican’s influence on protecting or undermining the religious freedom of Chinese Catholics is examined over the course of the following years. However, the deal provides a concrete example of Xi Jinping’s plans for “Sinicization” of outside organizations in China, and can be used to tease out the moral balancing act any foreign organization must consider when seeking to operate in China. From NGOs to overseas universities to religious organizations, all foreign actors must make sacrifices to gain access to China. From Google to Hollywood producers to Princeton University itself, every organization working in China must consider whether the benefits of continued access to the resources of the Chinese population are outweighed by the moral sacrifices demanded by collaborating with an authoritarian regime.