Vatican-China Accord: Snapshots From Behind the Scenes

NEWS ANALYSIS: A flurry of activity in China demonstrates the high stakes behind the talks.

Pope Francis waves at pilgrims from China at his general audience in St. Peter's Square on Sept. 7, 2016.
Pope Francis waves at pilgrims from China at his general audience in St. Peter's Square on Sept. 7, 2016. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

Negotiations between the Holy See and China, aimed at bringing unity to the  Catholic Church in China, which is divided into two communities — one, state-sanctioned; the other, functioning beyond government control —  are on course for a landmark breakthrough in 2017.

This is according to Church experts who observe the process at close range, unless close observers instead are projecting their own hopes into the new year.

The Vatican’s objective is not yet full diplomatic relations between China and the Holy See, but normalizing the process for selecting bishops, in order to protect the essential papal role within a political framework that, given its nature, rejects “foreign interference.”

This isn’t new terrain for the Holy See: In all communist countries during the Cold War (including Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania), and more recently Vietnam, the Vatican has had to compromise, in order to protect the institutional Church.

The current situation in China is ad hoc: If priests learn they are being considered for episcopal appointment by the government, most seek approval from the Vatican, thus managing to be jointly approved. Of approximately 110 bishops in China, about 70 are jointly approved by Rome and Beijing, some 30 are solely endorsed by the Holy See, and eight are state-appointed bishops whose status is now under review by the Vatican. Reconciliation between Rome and Beijing has been a top priority for Pope Francis from the start of his pontificate, building on progress made under Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Like reading tea leaves, observers interpret progress based on patterns and signs, not explicit reports from either side.

The Vatican has not publicly released the names of those negotiating on behalf of the Church, for example, although efforts are certainly led by Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, Pope Benedict XVI’s point man for China in 2005, when the Vatican re-established direct communication with the communist government, and in 2007, when Benedict released a comprehensive letter on Catholicism in China and episcopal ordination.

Over the last six months, cumulative evidence points to a strong “positive line,” concludes Missionhurst Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, founding director of the China-focused Ferdinand Verbiest Foundation at Leuven Catholic University in Belgium, a member of the Vatican Commission for the Church in China under Pope Benedict and a missionary to China since 1980.

“I expect more good news coming in 2017,” Father Heyndrickx told the Register.

Another globe-trotting priest confirmed the two sides are “very, very close” to agreement. Unauthorized to speak on behalf of the Holy See, he asked not to be named — for now.

But high-level opponents of rapprochement are now engaged in 11th-hour counterpunches.

Hong Kong’s indomitable 84-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, China’s most senior Catholic cleric and a determined opponent of any deal involving concessions to Beijing, gave a crushing interview to The Wall Street Journal.

In the interview, Cardinal Zen calls the potential agreement “totally unacceptable,” made possible he said, by Pope Francis’ inexperience with communism’s systemic commitment to repression: “I'm sorry to say that in his goodwill he has done many things which are simply ridiculous.”

Cardinal Zen’s concerns — related to how the Vatican’s current drive for rapprochement may not sufficiently take into account the difficulties of dealing with China’s repressive and anti-religious communist regime — have been noted by other observers, including members of China’s underground Catholic community. An article last week — posted by the online Catholic news source — “Under Ground Church on Ninth Assembly: Chinese Catholic Used as Pawns and Tools of Political Tactic,” gives voice to local concerns that Cardinal Zen sees himself amplifying.

Historically, in every country where the Holy See has felt compelled to compromise with noxious regimes, there have also been local leaders who refuse to stand down from the truth of oppression. Remarkably, our Church celebrates leaders such as Hungarian Cardinal József Mindszenty, Ukrainian Primate Josef Slipyi and Czech Archbishop Josef Beran, rather than suppressing their views.


One Church, Two Communities

Father Heyndrickx explained the mainstream media generally makes a critical mistake when it describes Catholicism in China as being divided into two churches, often described as the “patriotic church” vs. the “underground Church.”

“There is only one Catholic Church in China, but it is internally divided into two communities, official and unofficial, as a result of history,” the Missionhurst priest said.

The profound tension emerged in 1957, when the Chinese government created the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association as an independent national church, with no ties to Rome. 

Pope Pius XII described bishops ordained by the Patriotic Association as “false shepherds” who earned automatic excommunication.

The vast majority of Catholics rejected this communist attempt to displace the Holy See.

Many continued to practice their faith, but avoided government-sanctioned and controlled churches, which includes all the pre-communist sacred spaces expropriated by the state.

To this day, millions of believers — of an estimated 12 million Catholics — break the law to attend Mass, with congregants gathered in idle workplaces, private residences and even outdoor spaces.

“Others,” explained Father Heyndrickx, “did not accept separation from the pope, but found it more convenient to attend official Mass, and they were called the official Church, as opposed to the underground one.”

Father Heyndrickx, age 85, has witnessed the evolution of the Church in China as a missionary and Sinologist (academic study of China): “I have talked with both groups for a long time, and there was never a schismatic Church. Chinese Catholics themselves resisted, perhaps silently, every attempt to separate them from the pope.”

“Rome believes and accepts there is only one Catholic Church in China, and, unfortunately, it is internally divided. That has lasted for so many years, but it’s the big issue at stake, where we need reconciliation — to appoint bishops acceptable to all and to bring these two communities of faith together,” he said.

Returning to the media, the priest complained, “You’ll see a media report that shows a picture of a church, described as patriotic or state-run, then a different place called the real church, underground. That is absolutely false!”

“I consider it an insult to those faithful who go to churches — and the churches are filled. They feel insulted when they are called ‘official,’ as though they follow the government, not Rome,” the priest exclaimed.

“The Chinese authorities know ‘their’ bishops, so-called, are with the Pope. They know this,” asserted Father Heyndrickx with conviction.

The division between patriotic and underground Catholics has blurred especially in the last 10 years, propelled by Pope Emeritus Benedict’s pastoral letter calling for forgiveness between state-approved and unregistered faith communities, in order to “help all Catholics grow in unity.”


Last Week’s Assembly

Nevertheless, the state-managed Church apparatus is extensive.

Besides the Patriotic Association, there’s a Chinese Conference of Catholic Bishops, unrecognized by the Vatican.

Last week, Dec. 27-29, the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) convened both groups in Beijing at the Ninth Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives, bringing together 59 bishops (of approximately 110 in the country) from 31 provinces and approximately 350 delegates, including priests, nuns, lay leaders and SARA bureaucrats.

Both the Chinese government and the Holy See have approved the majority of bishops who attended the meeting.

The assembly last met in 2010, when the Vatican asked bishops loyal to Rome not to attend. Normally, the meeting is held every five years, but SARA postponed it a year, due to unfolding Beijing-Rome talks.

This year, instead of discouraging participation, the Holy See adopted a “wait and see” attitude, by way of a statement from Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, addressed to the media: “Regarding the 9th Assembly, the Holy See is waiting for hard facts before it makes a judgment.”

Cardinal Zen, long an opponent of negotiating with a Chinese government intrinsically atheistic and murderous, wrote in his blog that the Church is fooling itself to imagine anything positive coming from this communist-controlled event.

The respected online Catholic news source, sponsored by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, shared the thought of one Catholic: that the meeting represented a “slap in the face” to the Vatican because it intransigently insisted on the exclusive rights of a state church called Catholic.

Fox News highlighted the rhetoric of SARA’s director, extolling Chinese Catholics as patriotic, independent and intent on Church “sinicization” — eliminating foreign influence and making the faith more Chinese.


Sheep in Wolves Clothing?

For his part, Father Heyndrickx noted the appointment of three new vice chairs to the bishops’ conference, all individuals who have been approved by both the Holy See and the government.

He expects them to step up and assume more of the work being done by the current conference president, Msgr. Ma Yinglin, just re-elected, who was ordained by the government alone and is thus considered an illegitimate bishop in the eyes of the Vatican — one of eight standing bishops in China ordained without prior, concurrent or even later Vatican approval.

Yet Bishop Ma is a good example of the complex personal perspectives that factor into the Sino-Vatican situation.

People who know him say he is authentically faithful.

While on a 10-day pilgrimage to the United States last year as a guest of the Yale University Divinity School, Bishop Ma and two bishops’ conference vice presidents wrote an inscription to Pope Francis in a Bible: “We love you; we pray for you; we wait for you in China.”

Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston reportedly delivered the Bible to the Pope himself.

In August, the last time a Vatican delegation visited China, Archbishop Claudio Celli, one of the Vatican’s most experienced China experts, was in Beijing. He asked to meet with the unapproved bishops in a hotel, and the government acquiesced, a source told the Register.

As the meeting was ending, “Archbishop Celli suggested they all reverence each others’ episcopal rings, which they all did, and Bishop Ma especially was so taken by that.

“Bishop Celli did it, in saying, ‘We are all brothers,’ and then he kissed Bishop Ma’s ring, and Bishop Ma kissed his ring as a sign.”

“It was a totally informal, but nonetheless terribly significant, gesture,” said the Catholic source.

He also reported that, 10 days ago, Bishop Ma did not expect to be re-elected. Hardliners in the government suspect him of being too close to Rome. 

“President Xi still wants this to happen, but he has his own [hardline] cardinals to deal with.”

Bishop Ma’s re-election as president of the Chinese Bishops’ Conference is thus another “positive development,” said the source.


Personal Cases

Reuters reported last summer that the Holy See planned to pardon the eight illicit Chinese bishops as part of the Year of Mercy, a scenario that did not happen.

A priest close to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples explained that the two sides are “very, very close” and what divides Rome and Beijing “comes down to some details.“

He continued, “One unapproved bishop has a spouse and two children. What to do with him is difficult. That’s one of the details being determined now. And on the other side, there are several underground bishops who have been so anti-government Beijing has trouble accepting” their legitimization.

“It has come down to a few of individuals, just a few, and it is not even a matter of them not being acceptable, but working out an arrangement,” the Chinese-speaking cleric continued.

“At this point, it is taking time, because it is very personal.”

In fact, the bishop widely reported to have a family, Paul Lei Shi-yin, who was ordained June 29, 2011, and immediately excommunicated, reportedly disrupted two recent ordinations.

Between Nov. 10 and Dec. 2, four ordinations were held of bishops approved by both Beijing and Rome.

What should have been more positive evidence of increased bilateral consensus turned sour, with the uninvited appearance of Bishop Lei at two of the ordinations. He was described by the Hong Kong Sunday Examiner as appearing “on the order of higher state authorities.”

The Vatican felt compelled to release a press statement sympathizing with the “sorrow” of Catholics scandalized by Bishop Lei’s presence. Since it violates canon law for an illicit bishop to concelebrate with approved bishops, their participation introduces a toxic element to sacred celebrations. 

Bishop Lei’s odd case is one of the eight episcopal appointments Beijing seems to expect the Holy See to endorse.

Considering that question marks also hang over the fate of some 30 underground bishops, whom Cardinal Parolin assured nuncios last September won’t be abandoned, there sure seems to be a devil in these details related to the rumored agreement between China and the Vatican.

Victor Gaetan is an award-winning international correspondent and a

contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine and the Washington Examiner.