China-Vatican Relations Take a Small, Positive Step

The Chinese government now recognizes as a state title the bachelor of arts diploma seminarians receive.

A Catholic Church in Jingzhou, China
A Catholic Church in Jingzhou, China (photo: Wikipedia/Zhangzhugang)

VATICAN CITY — In a tiny victory for Vatican-Chinese rapprochement, China’s government now recognizes seminary studies and allows seminarians to continue their education in a state university should they leave.

The bachelor of arts diploma young men receive in the seminary is now recognized as being a state title by the Chinese government. With the recognition, it is now possible for seminarians who decide to quit their priestly formation to continue their education at a state university.

The news came in a brief July 23 article by Fides, the press agency for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

The piece focused the close of the academic year for China’s six authorized seminaries. In total, 79 seminarians earned their bachelor of arts degree, ending their first cycle of studies. They have now been sent to work in parishes and ecclesiastical communities.

Work for the future parish priests will prove difficult in China, where there are mixed signals that on one side suggest an improvement in relations between China and the Holy See, while on the other hand show that the topic of religious freedom is still crucial.

One sign of improved in relations is that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has held office since March 2013, has shown interest in improving Holy See-Beijing relations.

The president allowed Pope Francis’ plane to fly over China while the Pope was en route to the Philippines in January. He also responded to the telegram Francis sent to him while flying through Chinese airspace.

On Jan. 21, 2015, Hua Chunying, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said China’s government is “willing to have constructive dialogue with the Vatican based on relevant principles.”

On the other hand, there are also areas of division between Chinese Catholics and the Chinese central government. One of them is the current demolition of buildings and crosses in the province of Zhejiang. On July 28, Asia News reported that Catholics and Protestants launched an “ecumenical’ campaign to make crosses and carry them everywhere as a sign of solidarity.

According to the government, the demolition plan — which began in early 2014 and has already affected more than 400 buildings and crosses — is part of the government’s effort to tear down illegal buildings.

However, the decision has been interpreted as a persecution campaign against Chinese Christians.

Last week, Msgr. Vincent Zhu Weifang of Wenzhou, close to 90, took the streets with 26 priests from his diocese to call for an end of the demolition of crosses. It was the fourth time the Catholic community in Wenzhou has publicly protested against the destruction.

Another division came out with the protests of “Occupy Central,” a civil-disobedience campaign that took place in Hong Kong last year, calling for democracy and protesting against electoral reforms proposed by the Chinese government, seen as highly restrictive.

The movement was backed by many Catholics, including Cardinal Joseph Zen, archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong, who publicly protested alongside members of the movement.

Xi Jinping likely referred to these facts when, in late May, he warned that “religions in China must be free from foreign influence” and incorporated into Socialist Chinese society.

The president’s declarations, however, didn’t deter the Holy See from moving forward toward a first, diplomatic rapprochement.

Although the time hasn’t come for a papal nuncio to China, there’s a possibility of an agreement between the Vatican and China. If an agreement is reached, it could lead to a first, historic step: the appointment of a Vatican resident representative in China, though without the rank of an “ambassador.”

Diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China were cut in 1951, two years after the Chinese Communist Party seized power. The Holy See has tried to keep some channel of dialogue open ever since, with increasing concern for Catholics in the country.

The restoration of ties between the two has been slow and characterized by moments of freeze and sudden thaws.

Diplomatic talks for a final rapprochement are still at an early stage, but Xi Jinping’s policy on religious issues might help to overcome the difficulties.

First among the difficulties is the situation of the Church in China, which is often described as divided between an official’ Church, the Patriotic Association linked to the government, and an underground Church, which is persecuted and whose episcopal appointments frequently go unacknowledged by Chinese authorities.

A source from the Congregation for the Evangelization of People told CNA July 27 that the situation is even more nuanced than this.

“For years, priests of Chinese communities and [the] faithful have been working to overcome the divide between ‘clandestine’ and official Church,” the source maintained.

He added that “the more the ‘Cultural Revolution’ gets farther in time, the fewer the differences between [the] Patriotic [Association] and underground Church are.”

This happened thanks “to the work of Chinese bishops and Vatican officials who had patiently entertained relations in order to gain the hoped, and yet not achieved, twofold recognition of all the current bishops by China and the Holy See.”

Nowadays, the source concluded, “there is the clear perception that the Chinese Church has never been schismatic, though it endured lacerations and compromises.”

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray testifies Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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