Argument

The Pope’s Latest Encyclical Is Beautiful—and Hypocritical

“Fratelli Tutti” lays out a set of principles that the Vatican doesn’t apply to its own China deals.

Pope Francis prays as he addresses the crowd from the window of the apostolic palace overlooking St. Peter's Square during his Angelus prayer at the Vatican on Oct. 18.
Pope Francis prays as he addresses the crowd from the window of the apostolic palace overlooking St. Peter's Square during his Angelus prayer at the Vatican on Oct. 18. Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images

There is nothing in Pope Francis’s new encyclical—Fratelli Tutti (“All Brothers”)—with which I disagree, except its hypocrisy.

It is a clear restatement of Christianity’s central teachings of love, charity, peace-making, justice, and fundamental human rights—and a timely reminder of the need for compassion in a world of growing division, hatred, and conflict. But core as those principles have been to Francis’s papacy, why have they never been consistently applied to the Vatican’s relationship with China?

Centered largely on the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, the encyclical presents a vivid call for us to reach out to help those who have been assaulted, robbed, left bleeding—and not to, as Francis puts it, “hurry off as if they did not notice.”

Crucially, it urges us to “recognize the urgent need to combat all that threatens or violates fundamental human rights” and specifically to address human trafficking, the sale of human organs, and slave labor.

Interwoven among its pages is a demand for recognition of the human dignity of every person in the world regardless of race, religion, gender, class, background, or country. “If every human being possesses an inalienable dignity, if all people are my brothers and sisters, and if the world truly belongs to everyone,” the pope writes, “then it matters little whether my neighbour was born in my country or elsewhere. My own country also shares responsibility for his or her development.”

Francis calls for reform of the United Nations “so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth”; he applauds civil society for helping to “compensate for the shortcomings of the international community, its lack of coordination … its lack of attention to fundamental human rights and to the critical needs of certain groups”; and he appeals for an end to impunity and for justice, “out of respect for the victims, as a means of preventing new crimes.”

He emphasizes that forgiveness does not mean “renouncing our own rights” in the face of “corrupt officials, criminals or those who would debase our dignity.” True love, he argues, is making an oppressor “cease his oppression” and “stripping” the oppressor of power.

“Forgiveness does not entail allowing oppressors to keep trampling on their own dignity and that of others, or letting criminals continue their wrongdoing,” Francis writes. “Those who suffer injustice have to defend strenuously their own rights. … If a criminal has harmed me or a loved one, no one can forbid me from demanding justice.”

And, he adds, defending religious freedom for all “must not be forgotten in the journey towards fraternity and peace.”

He reiterates the church’s explicit opposition to the death penalty and calls for its abolition worldwide—an important message, especially for China, which remains the world’s leading executioner.

I agree passionately with all of this. My only question—and I address this to the Holy Father himself—is why is China exempt from this, as far as the Vatican is concerned?

Why, Holy Father, have you never once even expressed a prayer publicly for the Uighurs, who face many of the crimes you rightly critique—slavery, trafficking, torture, and possible organ harvesting? In addition, at least 1 million are incarcerated in concentration camps; women face a campaign of forced sterilization or forced abortion; and the evidence is mounting that the Uighurs are facing the 21st century’s latest genocide.

So I ask, Holy Father, why are you about to renew a deal with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that has yielded no benefit at all to Catholics in China, let alone religious freedom in the country more broadly, while remaining silent on the crimes that are currently being committed against the Uighurs?

Moreover, why have you not expressed any public concern for the plight of Christians in China, who face the most severe repression arguably since the Cultural Revolution, with the destruction of churches and crosses, the imprisonment of clergy, intense surveillance in state-approved churches, a ban on minors going to worship, and a new translation of the Bible that reinterprets it according to the CCP’s way of thinking?

Holy Father, why was the release of jailed Catholics not made a precondition for the original Vatican-China deal two years ago, and what are you doing now to secure the release and well-being of those currently in prison?

Holy Father, why is the text of the agreement between the Vatican and China still a secret? Why can’t it be released and reviewed more widely?

And Holy Father, given all the principles you set out in your encyclical, about the importance of dialogue, solidarity, and fraternity, why did you refuse to meet Cardinal Joseph Zen, the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, when he made a long journey to Rome recently?

This courageous cardinal came all the way to Rome, aged 88, and was left waiting, a solitary—though truly inspiring—figure in St. Peter’s Square while the successor of St. Peter couldn’t spare him half an hour, even to hear him out, even to offer him some pastoral comfort? What fraternity and solidarity is that?

And then there’s Hong Kong.

The CCP reneged on its promises made under an international treaty—the Sino-British Joint Declaration—and destroyed Hong Kong’s freedoms, and at the same time the Vatican renews a deal with that same regime? What makes you confident that China will abide by its side of the agreement this time, when the regime’s record of mendacity and broken promises is well known?

Worse still, Hong Kong’s Catholic Diocese instructs its priests to “watch their words” in homilies, bans a prayer for the city, and instructs its schools to teach so-called patriotic education and prohibit students at Catholic schools from taking part in protests.

Holy Father, how does this fit the standards of solidarity, fraternity, or fundamental human rights that you so beautifully articulate in the encyclical?

The list could go on.

Most previous popes have met the Dalai Lama, but Pope Francis hasn’t. No prayers for Tibet from St. Peter’s Square.

Three years ago, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences held a conference on organ trafficking around the world—and invited the architect of China’s transplant program, Huang Jiefu, to address the meeting, refusing to hear from researchers with evidence of organ harvesting in China itself. The Pontifical Academy’s chancellor, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, claims that China is the best example of Catholic social teaching in the world today. I worry that Francis is listening too much to the deluded Sánchez Sorondo and not enough to Catholic social teaching in shaping the Vatican’s approach to China. Indeed, I worry that, as with so many other institutions around the world, the Vatican has been bought by China.

In so many other ways, I love this pope. I love his message of mercy, his emphasis on the poor, his call for justice. I am just perplexed, bewildered, and heartbroken that despite issuing such fine words in his encyclical, he remains so silent on the biggest human rights travesties of our time—the genocide of the Uighurs, the repression in Tibet, forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience, the persecution of Christians throughout China, and the destruction of Hong Kong’s freedoms—about which he has not said a word.

The gap between the principles in Francis’s encyclical and his actions is wide, and if he does not close it soon, his moral authority will be severely lost. I hate to see that happen. If he does not speak for the persecuted in China, Fratelli Tutti will become a Communist slogan rather than a Catholic doctrine.

Benedict Rogers is the co-founder and CEO of Hong Kong Watch, a senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW, and the co-founder and deputy chair of the U.K. Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

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