Sino-Vatican Relations: Will the Road to Reconciliation Endanger China’s Underground Church?

Pope Francis is prioritizing rapprochement with the nation’s communist rulers, but Cardinal Joseph Zen cautions that too much accommodation could exact an unacceptable price.

Pilgrims from China in St.Peter’s Square before the Wednesday general audience with Pope Francis on April 22, 2015.
Pilgrims from China in St.Peter’s Square before the Wednesday general audience with Pope Francis on April 22, 2015. (photo: Bohumil Petrik/CNA)
VATICAN CITY — Significant advances in relations between China and the Holy See could be just around the corner, as dialogue enters a new phase, according to Vatican and Chinese government sources.

Pope Francis’ bridge-building diplomacy is also raising hopes for a papal visit to the country, part of a process to help realize Benedict XVI’s vision of one Church in China. But not everyone is convinced, and the Holy See’s revamped Ostpolitik is causing concern that any gains will come at the cost of compromise.

Chinese media have been the latest to trumpet developments, reporting at the end of February that “hopes have risen” for a thaw in ties between China and the Vatican, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis.

It follows the visit of a Vatican delegation to Beijing last October and a reciprocal visit by Chinese officials to the Vatican in January. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, told Vatican Radio that the fact the two sides were talking was a “significant step” towards a “normalization of relations.”

Cardinal John Tong of Hong Kong welcomed the development in general terms, telling the Register March 3 that “dialogue and communication are always good for mutual understanding.”

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop emeritus of Washington, who has long-standing connections in China and recently returned from visiting friends there, told the Register March 2 he couldn’t tell if a thaw was apparent, but said Pope Francis is “understood, recognized and beloved” by both the Catholic Church in communion with Rome and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the state-controlled church.

But Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kuin, who describes himself as something of a “Jeremiah” among Chinese prelates, told the Register March 3 that he doesn’t “see any reason for optimism” or for “eagerness,” especially on the part of the Chinese authorities.

“They should not be eager to obtain anything; they have, already, everything, the full control of the Church,” said Cardinal Zen, who was bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009. “They should not be so naive to hope that the Holy See can make further concessions. Too many have been made already.”


Religious Freedom Restricted

Religious freedom in communist China has long been restricted, and Catholics continue to be divided between a so-called “underground” Church and those belonging to the Patriotic Association. The country has an estimated 12 million Catholics, of whom approximately 5.3 million are represented by the 70 bishops appointed by the state-controlled church.

Tensions with the Church mainly date back to 1949, when the Communist Party expelled Catholic and other missionaries. Diplomatic ties were then cut in 1951, and the Patriotic Association, which rejected papal authority, was formed in 1957.

An “underground” Church, which remained loyal to Rome, then emerged, and it was subjected to years of persecution, ranging from church demolitions and removal of thousands of crucifixes (taking place now in some provinces) to beatings and imprisonment of clergy and laity from the underground Church.

Catholics have gained greater freedoms in recent years, and nine out of 10 bishops in China are now in communion with the Pope, according to Cardinal McCarrick. But Beijing remains wary and continues to view Christians as fomenters of political dissent, especially as numbers increase (Chinese Christians now number around 100 million in total).

The government realizes that it cannot suppress such a large and increasing number of Christians, so it tries to control them. And with the Catholic Church, that means keeping a tight rein on one area where it can do so fairly easily: the appointment of bishops.

The long road to reconciliation began in earnest with Pope John Paul II and was continued by Benedict XVI, most memorably with his letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007 that asserted the Church had no political ambitions. In the mid-2000s, Cardinal Parolin, then undersecretary for the Vatican’s relations with states, played an important role in crafting a rapprochement with Chinese authorities, in particular drawing up a tacit agreement on the selection of bishops.

That agreement broke down when the Chinese authorities ordained a new bishop in 2010 without Vatican approval, and some priests were imprisoned. Two years later, another bishop loyal to Rome disassociated himself from the Patriotic Association and was placed under house arrest.


A Different Approach

Now, in a more concerted effort to win over Beijing, the Vatican is trying a slightly different tack, a more non-confrontational approach akin to that of Ostpolitik — the diplomatic outreach of Paul VI and his secretary of state, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, to the communists of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

As happened then, and perhaps even more so now, Pope Francis is choosing to bypass obstacles in a bid to foster dialogue, one that emphasizes mercy and the urgency conveyed through his “field hospital” analogy. One of the goals of the dialogue is a papal visit to China: The Holy Father has made no secret of his wish to visit, telling reporters in August 2014 that he’d go “tomorrow”  if he could. And during his in-flight interview while returning from Mexico, the Pope said, “I would love that,” when asked if he was planning a trip to China.

“Our firm wish [is] to find common ground and to have normal relations also with China and with Beijing, as with everyone else, or with the vast majority of the countries of the world,” Cardinal Parolin told Vatican Radio last October in response to a question relating to China. “The fact of dialogue is a positive thing.”

But aspects of this accommodating diplomacy do not rest well with some, most notably Cardinal Zen. He believes the underground Church is being marginalized, and, like Ostpolitik, he thinks the approach will be ultimately unsuccessful. A key weakness in the diplomatic strategy, he wrote in a blog post in early January, is that it “does not take [the underground Church] into account in negotiations.”

As examples, he noted that certain sensitive issues, such as the continued incarceration of Bishop Su Zhemin of Baoding and the three-year house arrest of Bishop Ma Daquin of Shanghai, were not part of the discussions between the two delegations in October and January.

The Pope also made no mention of China in his Jan. 11 address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See. Nor did he touch on the issue of religious freedom and persecution in a Feb. 2 interview with Asia Times, instead choosing to speak more about his admiration for China.

“The underground communities are the ace in the Holy See’s deck,” reminded Cardinal Zen. “If we amputate these limbs, what have we left in diplomatic standings to induce the other party to agree to our terms?” He warned that silencing the underground Church to please the government would be a “form of suicide.”

Cardinal Parolin, he went on to say, in this instance, is “intoxicated by the miracle of Ostpolitik” and regretted that, in a recent speech at a memorial for Cardinal Casaroli, Cardinal Parolin eulogized the former secretary of state, saying he favored new bishops that are pastors, not “gladiators who love to make a splash on the political stage.”


Episcopal Appointments

The Chinese cardinal is especially wary about an agreement on appointments of bishops. Bishop Zhanh Yinlin, who was ordained last year, was viewed positively by Catholic media as having Vatican approval, but Cardinal Zen noted that it was an “abnormal process,” with possible canonical problems.

He is also unsure of proposals under discussion in which the Pope would approve candidates “democratically elected” and put forward by a state-controlled “Council of Bishops.” This would go against Church teaching, he argued, and cited the words of Benedict XVI, who said papal authority to appoint bishops is given by Jesus Christ; it is not the pope’s property, nor “can the pope give it to others.”

Stressing that the government is behind all of the actions of the Patriotic Association, Cardinal Zen said such an agreement would mean “delivering the authority to appoint bishops into the hands of an atheist government.”

In his Asia Times remarks, he also warned the Holy See should not accede to Beijing’s demands that the Vatican recognize all official bishops, even excommunicated ones. Such bishops need to repent first, Cardinal Zen said.

“Has the mercy of God come to this?” he asked, adding that if the Holy See signed such an agreement, it would cause “a severe wound to the conscience of the faithful.” It would be the equivalent, he said, of “dialogue with Herod.”

In more measured comments to the Register, Cardinal Zen said: “If Ostpolitik means compromise without a bottom line, it will be taken by the communists as a sign of weakness. Then they feel they can press even for more, leaving no space for a real religious freedom.”

Cardinal Zen’s concerns over Ostpolitik are shared by others. Critics say that Cold War-era Church diplomacy left too much power in the hands of a few officials in Rome, ignoring the concerns of grassroots Catholics for short-term gain and delivering few results in the long term.

“It’s a case of ‘Rome on behalf of everyone,’ cozying up to those in power, but the Catholics on the ground don’t generally benefit,” a priest-historian close to the Vatican told the Register. “Those in the Curia micromanage from Rome a dialogue that is all about politics — it’s all about compromise.


Other Cardinals’ Perspectives

Cardinal Parolin declined to respond to the Register’s questions on the issue. When asked to comment on Cardinal Zen’s concerns, Cardinal Tong played them down.

“Criticism is inevitable, no matter what approach the Holy See would take with reference to China,” he said, adding: “Suppression, hardship is not anything unfamiliar, when you look back into the history of the Catholic Church. Our heart is always with all our brothers and sisters of our Church in China. We pray so that everyone would be granted the strength to carry the cross and follow the path of Christ.”

Cardinal McCarrick said he respects Cardinal Zen, whom he considers a friend, but does not agree with him. He said Cardinal Zen has “wounds” from seeing a disunited Church “being pushed aside sometimes, and he will not forget or forgive.”

Cardinal McCarrick, who is of similar mind as the Holy Father, said Pope Francis “never wants the Church to be divided by anything” and is building on Benedict XVI’s wish that there be just one Church in China. There is a “unity more than we can imagine” among Catholics in the country, he said.

Asked about concerns that the underground Church is being pushed aside, he said: “If you have a Church that considers martyrs, that sets them off against the others, this in itself contains the pebbles of a rocky road to disunity. Sure, I appreciated [Cardinal Zen’s] concerns and sufferings,” he continued. “You have to be proud of the Church that suffers, but also worried that a Church that suffers allows that suffering to be a barrier to the common union to which the Lord has called us.”

Regarding human-rights abuses, and if remedying them should be a condition for dialogue, Cardinal McCarrick said Francis has been “beautifully honest and consistent about talking about human rights,” adding that “we don’t know” what he is saying behind the scenes.

But for Cardinal Zen, reconciliation is impossible without facing up to the reality of what is taking place. “Only people who tell the truth deserve to be respected and taken seriously for a real dialogue,” he said.

Cardinal Tong takes a similarly realistic but more hopeful view: “Every single step of ‘development’ in the relationship between the Vatican and China is very difficult. It takes lots of hard work from lots of people.”

“Most important of all,” he added, “the Holy Spirit is also working hard.”


Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.