The autonomous territory of Hong Kong is in a fight for its life. For over two months, the citizens of Hong Kong have persisted in protesting an attempt by the Hong Kong chief executive to impose an amendment to the existing extradition laws that would allow the Chinese government to take suspects from Hong Kong to China for trial and sentencing. The protests have reached a crisis, with the airport shut down and troops amassing on the Chinese border. Opponents of the amendment say it is only the latest effort to eliminate Hong Kong’s legal and judicial independence, and that it will bring an end to freedom of speech and thought in Hong Kong.
All of that is widely known through mainstream media. But what isn’t was widely known is this amendment directly threatens Catholics in Hong Kong and the surrounding regions.
Catholics in America and around the world have a responsibility to the Church as an institution and to their brothers and sisters to support Hong Kong’s judicial and legal independence, and to denounce any attempts by China to subvert that independence. The stakes are high. They are nothing less than the authority of the Church—and the lives of Chinese Catholics who have fled there.
Anyone who worships in a Christian church not formally sanctioned by the Communist Party is regarded as a criminal. The price of that sanction is that churches and church leaders must acknowledge that their first loyalty is to the Party; God comes second. A pastor from a government-sanctioned church in Beijing explained it this way, “We have to remember first of all we are a citizen of this country. And we are a citizen of the Kingdom of God. That comes second.”
As a result, generations of Chinese Catholics have had to choose between aligning with the official, state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association—run by bishops appointed, not by the Vatican, but by the Chinese government—and with the “underground Church,” in which bishops appointed by Rome brought the Sacraments at great personal risk to the faithful. Many of the bishops within the state-run church were completely unrecognized by Rome, and several had even been excommunicated.
Now, however, the situation is even less clear. In 2018, Pope Francis reached an agreement with Beijing that was intended to normalize the situation for Catholics in China, but instead left many people unsure who calls the shots: the Communist Party, or the Supreme Pontiff? As a result of the agreement, the Pope asked two faithful underground bishops to step down, in order to replace them with seven illegitimate, government-appointed bishops whose loyalty is to the ruling Communist Party first and the Catholic Church second.
A few months later, the Holy Father acknowledged that the Chinese government continued to have significant influence over the appointment of bishops. He also said that as a result of the agreement between the Vatican and Beijing the faithful in the underground church “will suffer.”
Right now, Catholics and other Christians have a safe haven in Hong Kong. Even though the majority of the citizens of Hong Kong do not consider themselves Christian, the influence of Catholicism in the city is strong. There are 300 Catholic schools on the tiny island, and they educate 25% of the population. The Diocese of Hong Kong’s Justice and Peace Commission investigates human rights violations in Hong Kong and China; it has appealed to the UN in defense of religious freedom in China. In 2004, the diocese successfully resisted an attempt by China to gain control of the city’s Catholic schools.
But, in recent years, China has repeatedly encroached on Hong Kong’s independence. If the amendment is passed and China is allowed to extradite people it perceives to be criminals, religious groups in Hong Kong will face the same coercion as their counterparts on the mainland.
Even more concerning, the city’s Chief Executive—the amendment’s chief proponent—is neither a Communist nor an agnostic: she’s Catholic. It’s deeply disturbing that that she stands ready to sacrifice her city’s judicial and legal independence, and to a government infamous for its disregard for basic human rights and its suppression of the Catholic faith. Clearly, the Chinese ideal of religion as an instrument of the state has already infiltrated deeply into Hong Kong’s government.
For American Catholics, the plight of Christians in China and Hong Kong is a warning about what can happen when a government decides that it has the right to mandate belief.
Catholics in America and Hong Kong are united by a common cause: resisting those who would force Christians to show greater loyalty to a government-sponsored ideology than to their Church.
We don’t have to look very far to see examples in our own country. Just a few years ago, the ACLU tried to force the Catholic Trinity Health Services network in Michigan to perform abortions, even though their governing documents outlined their dedication to promoting life. A Catholic farmer was banned from a local farmers’ market because he posted on his Facebook page that he supports a traditional view of marriage. Right now, private Catholic adoption agencies face being closed down if they opt to place children with a married father and mother instead of a same-sex or unmarried couple. Not very long ago, every employer in the United States—including Catholic organizations and pro-life groups of all kinds—was required to pay for contraception and abortifacients through their healthcare plans.
What is happening in Hong Kong is not merely a scuffle between two groups of people on the other side of the world. It is a blatant attempt by an anti-Catholic government to tyrannize a free city, to suppress religion, and to subjugate more people to its godless ideology. It is also a reminder during our time in this world, as St. Augustine told us, in two cities: the city of God and the city of man. We must conduct ourselves in them both, but ultimately our loyalty can only be to one. The Catholics in Hong Kong know this, and they deserve our prayers and support as they seek to live in loyalty to God.
[Photo credit: Anthony Wallace/AFP]