The Curious Case of Bishop Zhu Baoyu

On May 7, Bishop Joseph Zhu Baoyu of Nanyang died peacefully in his sleep. The 98-year-old prelate is known throughout the world as the oldest person to contract the novel coronavirus and make a full recovery.

It was an uplifting tale that brought comfort and hope to millions of Catholics struggling against despair in the face of the global pandemic. Photos show Bishop Zhu as a spry-looking chap with a kindly yet mischievous smile—all in all, very much like a grandfather. If he could beat Covid at nearly 100 years old, surely there was hope for us all.

Yet Bishop Zhu’s career presents a fascinating glimpse into the tangled web of the Church in China. As the Vatican continues to negotiate its power-sharing agreement with the state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), the life of Bishop Zhu and the Diocese of Nanyang serve as a cautionary tale for those who would think of collaborating with the Communist Party of China.

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The so-called Opening of China is a period of what historians call “reform.” Of course, in the context of left-wing dictatorships, “reform” only ever means one thing: Party elites grudgingly relaxing their control over the economy in order to retain their power. True to form, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Communist Party of China implemented some limited market-oriented programs designed to buttress the fragile artifice of Maoism.

It’s possible that Father Joseph Zhu Baoyu thought his country was moving towards real reform: freedom from socialism, freedom from the Party, freedom to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience. Maybe he thought the Party was relaxing its grip, not just shifting its posture. Or maybe he was just tired of hiding.

In any event, in the middle of the “Opening,” Father Zhu led a group of pilgrims to the Shrine of Our Lady of Sheshan in Shanghai. For this, he was arrested by the Communist authorities, charged with “counter-revolutionary behavior,” and sentenced to ten years of hard labor.

Father Zhu was nearly seventy when he was paroled in 1988. Nevertheless, the Vatican appointed him Bishop of Nanyang in 1995.

Bishop Zhu served for fifteen years before stepping down in 2010. By then, he was 89 years old—well past a bishop’s usual retirement age of 75. But then he shocked the Church by immediately accepting membership in the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association: a government-controlled sect that Beijing hopes will replace the “counter-revolutionary” Roman Catholic Church. According to a report by Cath-Info, the media arm of the Swiss bishops’ conference, Bishop Zhu reconciled with the government in hopes of securing properties that had been stolen from the Church during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The Patriotic Association promptly re-installed him as Bishop of Nanyang.

This reconciliation divided the clergy in Nanyang. In a diocese where the Underground Church outnumbers the Patriotic Association, about half of the priests were content to see the two groups united under Bishop Zhu, a man who had repeatedly proven his loyalty to Rome. The other half, however, deplored any cooperation with the CPCA.

The anti-Zhu faction was led by an auxiliary bishop named Peter Jin Lugang, who also spent time in a work camp and knew firsthand the Party’s intransigence when dealing with the dissident Catholics. The following year, in 2011, Rome appointed Jin to succeed Zhu as the “Underground” Bishop of Nanyang.

The two men served as bishops (one ordinary, one coadjutor) of Nanyang until January 30, 2019, when Bishop Jin followed his predecessor and joined the Patriotic Association.

Curiously, he too claimed to be acting in the hope of restoring Church property which had been confiscated during the Cultural Revolution. That seems to be the standard line. They’re not fighting for religious freedom or independence from the state: just property.

A missionary of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions named Father Sergio Ticozzi wrote a dispatch for AsiaNews claiming that Bishop Jin had been tricked and coerced by the Communist authorities into joining the Patriotic Association. Allegedly, the government had only insisted that Bishop Jin register with the CPCA in order to continue his public ministry—they didn’t require him to join as a full member. Now, it isn’t clear what the difference is between registering and joining; in Bishop Jin’s case, there doesn’t seem to have been any difference at all. According to one AsiaNews source, an installation ceremony was “quickly set up in almost total silence,” and the government re-installed Peter Jin as the “Patriotic” bishop of Nanyang.

Father Ticozzi is a friend of Bishop Jin and claims the prelate’s “honesty of conscience… gave him no peace” over his apparent (if accidental) defection. The bishop “humbly submitted the request for forgiveness to the Holy See,” warning that “his behavior should be an example to many”: the Chinese government will not be content with a half-loyalty.

There are only two options available to Catholics. One is total submission to the state-run church. The other is a lengthy stint in a re-education center, where the government will purge all “counter-revolutionary” thoughts through forced labor. Bishop Jin had already experienced the latter.

Far be it from me to judge either of these men. I certainly mean no disrespect to the late Bishop Zhu, and have no desire to detract from the heartening story of his recovery from the novel coronavirus. I pray Christ shows him mercy, as I pray He’s merciful with me.

Yet I can’t help but note that every single story that comes out of China, be it happy or sad, is somehow tainted by the Communist Party. It seeps into everything, like a bad odor. It lingers in the air. I guess that’s the point of totalitarianism: it wants to be felt everywhere at once.

It’s also striking how much more complicated the situation in China is than we might have expected. We might think of the Patriotic Association and the Underground Church as two completely distinct camps, one very official-looking, and the other very obviously clandestine. The former (we think) has clean white vestments and modern church buildings; the latter exists only in secret, hiding in root cellars and forest glades. And that’s certainly the case in parts of China. But, in places like Nanyang, many “Underground” priests are permitted to carry out their ministry in public. It just makes it easier for the government to keep tabs on them.

And this is the crucial point. The Communist Party is undoubtedly willing to fine, imprison, torture, and kill those who resist its ideology. Sometimes, however, they opt for subtler methods.

For instance, Uyghur Muslims are a distinct ethnic group found mostly in the marginal Xinjiang province. It’s easy for the government to herd them into re-education camps and “cleanse their hearts” (the Communist Party’s euphemism for brainwashing) so they become secularized, socialized, and loyal to the State. In just the last three years, as many as 2 million Uyghurs have been or are currently detained in these camps.

But Catholics are not a visible minority, and there are believed to be over 5 million of them spread throughout China. It may be simpler, then, simply to infiltrate the Catholic Church. If they can’t destroy Catholics, they will destroy the Catholic Faith by seizing control of the hierarchy and turning the Underground Church over to the Patriotic Association. If the Party can’t “cleanse the hearts” of all 5 million Catholics, it can at least brainwash their bishops and let its propaganda trickle down.

I wonder, does the Vatican realize all of this? As they legitimize “Patriotic” bishops and allow the Politburo to help decide episcopal appointments, do they think they’re somehow thwarting the government’s plan to destroy the Catholic Church?

Legitimacy: that’s all the Patriotic Association has ever wanted. All they want is to get the “Underground” Catholics into government-run churches. They don’t care if the priests pay lip service to Pope Francis. They can pray for Pope Michael out in Topeka, Kansas, for all the Party cares. As long as the priests are giving good “Patriotic” homilies, driving home the Christian duty to obey the State unthinkingly, they’re content.

So far, their plan has worked like a charm. Before the ink dried on the Sino-Vatican concordat, reports emerged that government officials were ordering Catholic churches to replace images of Our Lord with photographs of President Xi.

As one party official said, “Many poor households have plunged into poverty because of illness in the family. Some resorted to believing in Jesus to cure their illnesses. But we tried to tell them that getting ill is a physical thing and that the people who can really help them are the Communist Party and General Secretary Xi.” That’s the Gospel according to Beijing.

And, if you ask Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, he’ll tell you they’re absolutely right. In 2018, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences infamously told Vatican Insider that “those who best realize the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese,” because they “subordinate things to the general good”—things like the Church, for instance.

Make no mistake: what’s happening in China is not “inculturation.” This power-sharing agreement will not result in a Sinicized Catholicism, but in a Romanized Communism.

Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad to Bishop Sanchez. But the rest of us can hardly be surprised that men like Joseph Cardinal Zen so furiously reject the Holy See’s power-sharing agreement. The Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong knows there can be no real accord between Christianity and Marxism. Diplomacy between the Church and the Communist Party must always be a battle of wits; each power must seize the advantage while making it appear as though its opponent has won.

Clearly, Cardinal Zen doesn’t trust the Vatican’s tiny diplomatic corps to outwit China’s vast foreign ministry. And why on earth would he? Why would anyone—particularly when senior members of the curia are openly espousing Maoism?

Last December, Cardinal Zen warned that Pope Francis is being “manipulated” by his secretary of state, Pietro Cardinal Parolin. No doubt Cardinal Parolin (a lean and hungry-looking man) is, in turn, also being manipulated by Beijing. According to Cardinal Zen, Parolin’s “vainglory” and desire for “diplomatic success” have deluded him into believing he can hoodwink China and return to Rome promising peace in our time. Indeed, it’s integral to his long-term career goals: Cardinal Parolin is usually named among the five cardinals most likely to succeed Francis, though his papability hinges on the success of this historic China venture.

Yet the Communist Party of China has a particular genius for outwitting even the most well-intentioned prelates (as Bishop Jin will be the first to admit), and Cardinal Parolin is not the most well-intentioned of prelates. There will never be peace between Christianity and socialism. Beijing knows that, though I’m not sure the Vatican does.


  • Michael Warren Davis

    Michael Warren Davis is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021). He previously served as editor of Crisis Magazine and U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald of London. His next book, After Christendom, will be published by Sophia Institute Press. Follow his Substack newsletter, The Common Man.

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