Last week, the Vatican signed a concordat with a totalitarian regime. The Chinese government, which has harassed and tortured millions of Christians, will now have a role in selecting Catholic bishops. The agreement is provisional and the details are vague, but that much is clear.

Whatever one makes of the deal, it inarguably constitutes a break with the Church’s support of religious freedom as expressed in the Second Vatican Council. Before Vatican II, Church officials generally had not sought to secure freedom for the Church by appealing to neutral and broadly applicable principles of religious freedom. Instead, they signed concordats that granted the Church certain privileges, often in exchange for the authorities’ receiving some say in Catholic life.

The China deal is an agreement of this older kind. In exchange for a role in choosing bishops, China will effectively acknowledge the Pope’s authority over Chinese Catholics – something the regime has never before conceded.

Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo has defended the deal by claiming that China “observes the common good and it has proved its ability to great missions like fighting against poverty and pollution”. This is a novel way to describe the regime. According to a UN report in August, Chinese authorities are currently detaining a million people (out of a total population of 11 million) in the western province of Xinjiang, home to the Uighur Muslim minority. An additional two million people in the province are undergoing some form of re-education. Cadres monitor and report on every family. Cameras have been placed inside some homes.

Restrictions on religious life extend well beyond Xinjiang. Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has bulldozed and burned Protestant and Catholic churches. Gao Zhisheng, a Protestant human rights lawyer, released a book last year describing his torture at the hands of Chinese officials. They beat and electrocuted him before secretly imprisoning him in a camp, where he suffered further psychological torture. Gao cals the regime “totalitarian”. Unlike authors who apply that descriptor to Western governments, he was secretly detained following the book’s publication.

How could the Catholic Church make a deal with such a regime? Critics of the agreement have tended to present it as yet another blunder by Pope Francis. But it indicates a broader loss of confidence in the political vision of Vatican II.

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