Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo is considered a confidant of Pope Francis. He is also highly controversial after claiming China is “implementing the social doctrine” of the Catholic Church.

In a broad-based interview with the Spanish-language edition of the Vatican Insider, the chancellor of the influential Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in Rome, praised the world’s second-largest economy, calling it “extraordinary.”

“Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese,” Bishop Sanchez Sorondo said in remarks reprinted in the Catholic Herald.

“You do not have shantytowns, you do not have drugs, young people do not take drugs,” the  75-year-old senior Vatican official added.

Yet a report released by the National Narcotics Control Commission last year showed that the number of drug addicts in China was on the rise.

Data confirmed that there were about 2.51 million drug users in the country of 1.37 billion by the end of 2016, an increase of 6.8% compared to the previous year. Up to 22,000 addicts were under 18, and more than 1.37 million were aged from 18 to 35, the report stated in the state-owned Xinhua News Agency.

Drug addiction

“What air, one wonders, did the bishop breathe in China, one of the most heavily polluted countries in the world?” wrote George Weigel, a senior fellow at Washington think tank, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, in the conservative magazine the National Review.

While government figures show that drug addiction is small, compared to the country’s vast population, it is still a problem.

The single largest source of illicit substances was Myanmar. More than 92% of heroin and 95% of methamphetamine seized by Chinese authorities were traced back to the Southeast Asian nation.

“For sure, geographic proximity to Myanmar is a major factor,” Su Xiaobo, an associate professor who researches the narcotics trade between Myanmar and China at the University of Oregon, told Sixth Tone, an online website specializing in contemporary China.

A report by The Brookings Institution in Washington produced similar numbers. It also stressed that more should be done to help addicts.

“China faces a growing problem of illicit drug use,” the report compiled by Sheldon X. Zhang, of San Diego State University, and Ko-lin Chan, of Rutgers University, stated in the executive summary. “Drug addiction is considered personal failure and addicts are highly stigmatized.

“Drug addiction does not receive much public sympathy or priority in government funding,” the report added.

Bishop Sanchez Sorondo’s knowledge of China’s housing problem also appears to be limited, judging by Beijing’s plan to dismantle 15 million shantytown homes from 2018 to 2020.

Premier Li Keqiang outlined the program after a cabinet meeting last year when a blueprint was unveiled to provide affordable homes for the poor. “The revamp not only improves people’s livelihood but also helps with investment, consumption and inventory de-stocking,” a statement from the cabinet said.

Beijing had already pledged to tear down 18 million slums from 2015 to 2017, the cabinet statement added.

China’s record on religious freedom is another explosive topic. Last year, the State Council or cabinet tightened regulations, intensifying a crackdown on unsanctioned activities and increasing its supervision of certain groups.

‘Physically abused’

The policy was announced just weeks after the US State Department released a report stating that China “physically abused, detained, arrested, tortured, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups.”

“China is an officially atheistic state, according to the Chinese Communist Party, and religious persecution is a staple of the regime’s repressive apparatus,” Weigel, who holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, went on to say in the National Review.

“[Bishop] Sanchez [Sorondo’s] statements inevitably implicate the Pope he serves and cast doubt not only on the prudence of the Vatican’s current attempts at a demarche with the PRC but on the integrity of the Holy See. Those are the facts,” he added

“To try to square them with the social doctrine of the Catholic Church requires something approaching a psychotic detachment from reality — or, worse, a willful ignorance, turning a blind eye to repression and persecution in order to indulge fantasies of a socialist paradise freed from the unpleasantness of bourgeois liberal society.”

Still, Bishop Sanchez Sorondo told the Vatican Insider that he found a “positive national conscience” when he visited China as part of diplomatic efforts by Rome over the Catholic Church’s position in the country and the appointment of bishops.

“What I found was an extraordinary China,” he said. “What people don’t realize is that the central value in China is work, work, work. There’s no other way, fundamentally it is like St Paul said: ‘He who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat’. [There is a] positive national conscience.”

But is that the “conscience” of the Catholic Church?