Every year, as Easter approaches, China experts expect to see news of the traditional Lenten kidnappings of bishops, which are a good indicator of the temperature of Sino-Vatican relations. This year, however, the eyes of the whole world seemed to be on China.

Al Jazeera announced that a historical agreement between China and the Vatican seemed to be in the making. The New York Times educated its readers that the Chinese government had founded the so-called Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics in 1957 so it could take over the task of appointing Catholic bishops from the Holy See and from this procedure two hierarchies were created, an “official” one, nominated by Beijing, and one that remained faithful to Rome, the “underground Church.” China correspondents from around the globe reported that now a new variation was going to be tried out: two bishops put in place by Rome were to resign as diocesans and hand over their episcopal sees to government-appointed candidates. This had been communicated to the underground bishops in private meetings with members of the Vatican’s China Commission and was to culminate in a “voluntary” hand-over initiated by the bishops themselves.

To some this solution seemed long overdue. Had a habitual but antiquated anti-communism on behalf of the Church become the obstacle to improved relations? Had an insistence on the authority to appoint bishops been prioritized over effective evangelization?

Such questions can only arise when the de facto practice concerning episcopal ordinations in China is not acknowledged. Beijing has long proposed candidates and Rome has accepted them, so long as there were no prohibitive objections. In this manner a policy of compromise bishops has been in operation for decades. The priority of the Holy See in this has always been to prevent episcopal ordinations that are sacramentally valid but illegitimate according to Church law. Candidates and ordaining bishops automatically excommunicate themselves when they participate in illegitimate ordinations. The large majority of Catholics in China perceive such ordinations as blasphemous and avoid receiving the sacraments from those involved. The dividing line between those who object to excommunicated bishops and those who support them does not, however, coincide with the line between “underground” and “official.” In fact, for the large majority of the faithful who are ministered to by officially registered clergy, sacramental unity with Rome is of the same paramount importance as it is for those who belong to unregistered underground parishes.

Hardliners siding with the Chinese government have repeatedly tried to characterize this “mentality” as narrow-minded and hard-hearted. But the letter of Pope Benedict XVI confirmed all of China’s Catholics in the conviction that their understanding of the sacraments is the same as that of the Church at large and that they should, if possible, try to receive the sacraments from legitimate bishops and priests.

Meanwhile the government has systematically pursued a strategy of sacramental confusion. Papal recognition after an illegitimate ordination requires the public acknowledgement of those involved that they had done wrong and are now forgiven. It requires petition, remorse, confession and only the Pope himself can lift the excommunication. Bishops who have undergone this process of reconciliation after being ordained without papal mandate have repeatedly become the target of government retaliation. The pattern is always the same: they will be blackmailed and, if that does not work, kidnapped in order to force them to concelebrate at the next illegitimate ordination. This then raises doubts about whether they, as co-ordainers, are excommunicated again and thus need to be reconciled again. The Vatican takes its time to investigate the nature of the pressure applied and communicates in private, which leaves the faithful in doubt about the status of their bishops, when really they have a right to know.

Adding to the muddle were bishops such as the late Aloysius Jin of Shanghai, who, though ostensibly recognized by Rome at least by 2005, stated subsequently, that for him there had never been a need to be reconciled in the first place. Was this to mean that he had nothing to regret, nothing to petition and thus he never actually asked? 

But it seems that not even half a century of this strategy of confusion has managed to dissuade China’s Catholics from taking the sacraments very seriously. Perhaps the missionary Alois Macheiner was right that Confucianism over the centuries had fostered a talent for reverence, a talent that served China’s Catholics as a propaedeutic for the Sacraments.

To better understand the outcry among China’s Catholics in the face of the proposed swapping of bishops as part of a Vatican-China deal, it is enough to have a closer look at the principal actors of this drama.

Peter Zhuan Jinjian arrived in the underground Church 76 years old, on the day of his episcopal ordination. Until then, his life as a Catholic had run along the tracks of the official Church. 1981, the year of the assassination attempt of John Paul II, had been the first year of hope for China’s Catholics since Mao’s long march, the takeover and the fanatical hatred of all things religious unleashed by the Cultural Revolution.

Seminaries reopened, albeit under strict governmental control. Peter Zhuan entered anyway, although he was already over fifty years old. As a priest of the official Diocese of Shantou he was registered with the Patriotic Association. After the death of the bishop in 1997, the Vatican and Beijing were unable for nearly a decade to agree on a suitable candidate. So in 2006 Zhuan agreed to be ordained in a clandestine ceremony, with papal mandate but without the permission of the government. That this would expose him to harassment was obvious, because now he was to be part of the Church that still, and in some aspects rightly, is described as “the underground.”

On behalf of the Vatican his ordination showed that there is no such thing as a political purity law according to which candidates from the official Church are accepted only in response to governmental pressure. On behalf of the government, the fact that Zhuan was not an acceptable candidate also raises questions. Was it because the diocese was meant to be remain vacant in order to weaken the Catholic community, or is being part of the official Church and registered with the Patriotic Association not enough for the line the government intends to advance with its appointments?

What sort of candidate the government does find suitable became clear to Zhuan when in September of last year, the by now 88-year-old bishop received a letter. 

The letter asked him to voluntarily retire in order to make place for Joseph Huang Binzhang, a 51-year-old bishop who is as yet still excommunicated. Huang had been ordained to the priesthood in 1991 and became a delegate of the National People’s Congress in 1998. He is also the vice president of the Patriotic Association. Huang was rejected as a candidate for episcopal ordination by Pope Benedict XVI and received the explicit directive from the Vatican not to present himself for ordination. When he was ordained bishop without papal mandate in 2011, most of the priests of the diocese absconded. Bishops from other dioceses were delivered to the ceremony against their will by security forces. Only Bishop Paul Pei Junming of Shenyang was able to resist: Following a vote among the clergy of his diocese, priests and faithful formed a human wall around him in the cathedral to prevent him being picked up by security personnel.

While it is no surprise that the government should want Huang in charge of a diocese, the letter asking Bishop Zhuan to hand his diocese over to Huang had been sent to him from Rome, not Beijing. Peter Zhuan could not quite believe it and decided to wait. In December security forces escorted Zhuan to Beijing, prohibiting any clergy of the diocese from accompanying him. In a meeting with “a bishop of the Vatican,” the same suggestion of a voluntary handover was put to Zhuan. The incredulous bishop still hesitated and wrote a letter to the Pope, entrusting Cardinal Zen with the delivery. Cardinal Zen caught a flight to Rome and presented himself at a public papal audience, letter in hand. This led to a longer meeting between Zen and the Pope, after which Zen was convinced that the entire affair was down to an intrigue played out behind the Pope’s back, while the Vatican press office let it be known that the Pope and his collaborators were of one mind and the comments of Cardinal Zen “regrettable.” 

If Joseph Huang was now considered a worthy successor by Rome, why was he still excommunicated? Did he belong to those convinced that, along the logic of the late Aloysius Jin, there is nothing to forgive? Or was his asking for forgiveness conditional on accession to the episcopal throne? Either way, with the matter of his excommunication still unresolved, the impression that the Vatican Commission was prioritizing the political over the sacramental was unavoidable. What then, was the ultimate goal pursued by this intervention? Was it to give China’s Catholics good shepherds and to protect the sanctity of the sacraments or was the aim to re-educate them in such a manner that eventually the absence of both would no longer matter?

The circumstances surrounding the second suggested swap of bishops are even more extreme. Vincent Zhan Silu is also among the last excommunicated and unreconciled bishops. His ordination served no pastoral purpose and took place in 2000 as a gesture of overt provocation in the face of John Paul II’s preparation to canonize the 120 Martyr Saints of China during the Jubilee. After years of solitary existence in an office supplied by the government, Zhan in 2006 declared himself in a ceremony of self-installation diocesan bishop of Funing. The diocese consists of 90% underground Catholics and already had a legitimate bishop, albeit not recognized by the government. In order to guarantee a legitimate succession in the diocese, Pope Benedict XVI agreed to the clandestine ordination of Vincent Guo Xijin as coadjutor, despite the fact that the government was not on board. Guo took over after the death of the local ordinary in 2016, but every year, just before Holy Week, he was picked up by security personnel and kept from the cathedral for weeks, in order to prevent him from celebrating the Chrism Mass of Holy Thursday as diocesan bishop in communion with his priests. This kidnapping was meant to allow Zhan the possibility to make an appearance as bishop and to cast the shadow of his excommunication over sacramental matters by blessing the holy oils for baptism, confirmation and anointing of the sick. But as long as clergy and faithful refused to participate, this only underlined his lack of authority. 

Now Rome was asking Vincent Guo to voluntarily hand over the diocese to precisely this illegitimate, excommunicated and as yet unsuccessful usurper. Bishop Guo stated that he will obey the Holy Father, but how this arrangement might profit his flock seemed not to be clear to him either.

While the media became aware of this situation through the public objection of Cardinal Zen, Guo was due for his annual Easter deportation. This time he was released the next day, allegedly after a telephone call from Rome, according to the Pope’s personal friend Gianni Valente, who claims to have direct insight into the workings of the Vatican’s China commission. Bishop Guo’s sacramental theology seemed unaffected by this improved treatment: He announced that he would not concelebrate Chrism Mass with bishop Zhan, who after all, was still excommunicated.

Acceptance of two of the most problematic bishops in China seems to currently be the price for a Vatican-China deal, but for what kind of a deal? Critics promptly pointed out that any pope could have had an agreement that supplies China’s Catholics with as many compromised shepherds as the government can find.

What, though, would have happened if the affair had not become public through Cardinal Zen’s intervention? Would it have become clear that the underground bishops were told to resign by the Vatican and did so against their will, purely out of obedience? Or would announcements by the Vatican press office, in concert with Vatican Insider articles by Gianni Valente, have created the impression that these two bishops took a conciliatory step because they had come to realize that the refusal to collaborate with the government is based on a pharisaic fallacy? When in 2016 the young Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai after four years of house arrest suddenly announced that it had been a mistake to leave the Patriotic Association, did he do so on his own accord or had similar pressure been applied from Rome? Ma has since publicly concelebrated with the excommunicated Zhan, but so far not even this has gained him the freedom to exercise his office in the Diocese of Shanghai.

Illegitimate ordination is a clearly defined sacramental act and results in automatic excommunication, always and everywhere. It is perceived as blasphemous throughout the Catholic community in China, whether open or underground. Joining the Patriotic Association in comparison seems more of a slippery slope. Initially, joining consists in no more than a signature. However, the guiding principles of the Association (self-direction and radical independence from Rome) have been clearly labelled as “incompatible” with Catholic doctrine by Pope Benedict XVI. 

Still, membership as such does not seem to commit clergy to any concrete acts in accordance with these principles and what exactly the membership implies varies according to local circumstances. How much resistance to a formal membership with this Association, then, is reasonable? There seems to be a spectrum of opinion on this matter. What is certain, however, is that it has been the strategy of the Patriotic Association from the very start to present priests and bishops of the underground Church who refuse to join as self-righteous and rigid, suggesting that their first priority is not to serve their faithful. 

The Vatican too seems to have harbored competing lines of thinking about collaboration with the Patriotic Association, as became apparent with the debacle about the misleading official translation of Pope Benedict’s letter to Chinese Catholics. In the first Chinese version the impression was given that Association membership is not only possible but is even an indication of pastoral zeal, while the original text clearly stated that joining should be avoided because of the incompatibility of its principles with Catholic doctrine. Then too it was Cardinal Zen who sounded the alarm. 

Pope Benedict had the translation amended and subsequently appointed the Hong Kong based theologian Xavier Hon to the highest post in the curia ever held by a Chinese. Hon’s linguistic advantage, theological preparedness, and experience during his years as a professor in official seminaries on the mainland uniquely qualified him to guide the Vatican’s new China policy. Like Cardinal Zen, he was convinced that there are still good reasons for the underground Church to exist. When Pope Francis removed Hon from his position in the curia to appoint him nuncio to Greece, a return to the old concordat diplomacy and readiness for compromise with the Patriotic Association was to be expected.

By now there can be little doubt that religious believers in China will be facing new challenges. President Xi Jinping has made the political system more authoritarian and is holding more and more power in his own hands. While the Vatican was negotiating and the Argentinian Bishop Sanchez Sorondo praised China for the “best” realization of the social teaching of the Church, an estimated million Uighur Muslims had been temporarily detained. Beijing fears the infiltration of extremists from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since April 2017 reports are accumulating that large numbers of Muslims with “strong religious convictions” are being tortured in psychiatric institutions. More than 100,000 are reported to be held in re-education camps. 

At the same time the growth of the Catholic Church in China for the first time since the Cultural Revolution seems to stagnate at around 12 million, or even go into decline, while Protestants continue to attract new members. This is not because they are more inclined to collaborate. In fact, while about half of the Catholics are in the “underground,” two-thirds of the 60 million Protestants are not registered. In 2016 alone more than 1700 house church leaders were arrested.

While the Vatican in December 2017 still tried to arrange a “voluntary handover” on behalf of the underground bishops and apparently was hoping for an agreement before Easter, it must have been clear to the Chinese side what restrictions Catholics would face under the new “Regulations for Religious Affairs” that would come into force in February.

The month of March, then, did not bring an agreement. Instead, the man who was responsible for the removal of thousands of crosses and the destruction of many churches in 2014, was promoted into the inner circle of President Xi Jinping. Others are already mimicking his strategy. In three more provinces a campaign for the removal of crosses has been initiated and registered churches are equally affected. Bibles can no longer be sold online and most drastically, according to the new regulations, minors cannot receive religious instruction or indeed attend religious services. Signs with the directive “no access for minors” have already been installed at the entrance of many churches. An Easter Vigil celebration in Zhengzhou was interrupted by a police raid during which all Catholics under the age of eighteen were forced to leave the building.

In the Province of Jiangxi, Catholics have been informed that depictions of Jesus in their homes had to be taken down and replaced with images of President Xi Jinping. Non-compliance would mean that they would no longer receive social benefits.

Being registered with the Patriotic Association seems to offer no protection to religious believers facing such arbitrary impositions.

Such developments raise further questions about an agreement between Rome and Beijing. Was a deal meant to ensure preferential treatment for Catholics against the backdrop of an increased hostility to religion in general? Or was the hope for an agreement meant to ensure that the most media-effective pope of all times would continue to keep his silence about human rights violations in China? 

There is no doubt that China’s Catholics are entering this new phase of repression greatly weakened, with forty dioceses vacant, some bishops whose canonical status is not clear and many bishops who were compromise candidates between Rome and Beijing and whose ultimate loyalty has yet to be proven. 

Mid-April iconoclast aggression on behalf of the government reached a new peak when a bulldozer destroyed the grave of the venerated underground bishop Peter Li Hongye. In this senseless act of vandalism there was an irony, lost on the perpetrators but not on the faithful: after prison, labor camp and house arrests Bishop Li had served his flock in extreme poverty and into extreme old age. The popular bishop had died 91 years old during the celebration of the Easter Liturgy, after blessing the baptismal water with the words: “may all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with him to newness of life.”

Raphaela Schmid is a freelance writer and co-author of the film God in China: The struggle for religious freedom (2008).

This article was originally published in German by Vatikan Magazin.