Vatican-China Agreement in Sight, but Chinese Catholic Reconciliation Further Off

The Holy See is searching for an agreement that will reunify the Catholic Church in China’s underground and official communities.

Below, pilgrims from China at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 12, 2016.
Below, pilgrims from China at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 12, 2016. (photo: Main photo, Shutterstock; pilgrim photo, Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

Although the Vatican has had a long-standing dialogue with the People’s Republic of China seeking a way to select bishops acceptable to both the government and the Pope, those efforts now seem on the verge of an historic agreement.

But tensions over this potential rapprochement between the Chinese communist government, which is officially atheist, and the Vatican have also highlighted the pastoral need for reconciling the Church in China itself. The faithful and their bishops there have been painfully divided into two communities for more than 60 years: an officially recognized Church, which accommodates state control over Catholic religious affairs, and an unofficial “underground” Church, which has faced long-standing persecution for professing its primary loyalty to the Pope, not the government.

Late last month, Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, revealed a Vatican team had gone to China to request two underground bishops step aside for two government-approved bishops who were consecrated illicitly. The new appointments are among seven bishops who were chosen by the Chinese government and illicitly consecrated, and who the Vatican reportedly now is accepting in order to normalize its relations with the government. 

Cardinal Zen, who is strenuously opposed to the request on the grounds that it represents an abandonment of the faithful Catholics in the underground Church, communicated his concerns personally in January to Pope Francis. According to the cardinal, the Pope at that time assured him that he did not want another “Mindszenty case” — an allusion to Cardinal József Mindszenty, who had been persecuted by the communist regime governing Hungary after the Second World War and was eventually stripped of his episcopal see and title as part of a deal to normalize relations between the communist government and the Vatican.

Media reports from sources in the Vatican indicate Pope Francis and the Chinese government are nearly set to sign an agreement where the Pope would confirm or veto the episcopal candidates approved by Beijing and restore to full communion the seven bishops recognized only by the government. The Global Times, a state-run Chinese newspaper, editorialized favorably on how a deal with the Vatican would serve China’s strategic national interests, be “tremendously beneficial to Catholics,” and perhaps lead to full diplomatic relations.


Cardinal Parolin

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, explained in an exclusive interview in the Italian newspaper La Stampa that Pope Francis is fully informed of the negotiations taking place between Vatican and Chinese government representatives. He maintained the dialogue was following the principles outlined by Benedict XVI in his 2007 “Letter to the Church in China.”

Cardinal Parolin indicated that the Vatican sees the underground and official communities as two parts of one Chinese Catholic Church and hopes both follow a “gradual path of reconciliation toward unity” and not “perennial conflict.” The Vatican is aiming for “realistic pastoral solutions” that will allow Catholics in China to live the faith and evangelize “together” within their current context.

Cardinal Parolin explained the negotiations under Pope Francis were guided by “constructive openness to dialogue” and adherence to the Tradition of the Church. 

“[T]he Holy See pursues a spiritual aim: to be and feel fully Catholic and, at the same time, authentically Chinese,” he said.

Cardinal Parolin acknowledged that the current effort still faces “many unforeseen events,” that the solutions would not be perfect, and that the suffering of the underground Church would not be forgotten.

“But we all have confidence that, once the issue of the episcopal appointments has been adequately considered, the remaining difficulties should no longer be such as to prevent Chinese Catholics from living in communion with each other and with the Pope,” he said.


Cardinal Zen

From the Vatican’s point of view, the negotiations with the communist government for a final agreement on the selection of bishops would make sure the sufferings of the Church in China would not be in vain.

Cardinal Zen, who fled the communists to British-ruled Hong Kong in his youth, told the Register that Cardinal Parolin’s argument was “a lot of nonsense.”

“He’s presenting the whole thing not according to the reality,” he said.

The cardinal stated the Vatican was subverting the will of Pope Francis and selling out the underground Church. Cardinal Zen argued unity between the underground Church and the official church, which is supervised by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, was impossible until the Church was “free from the dominion of the government.”

The cardinal likened the negotiations to putting free birds into a cage (unnamed Vatican officials talking to other news media have also utilized this metaphor, but argued that they were working hard to make the cage bigger).

“No good deal is possible,” Cardinal Zen said, pointing out that the government is tightening control of religious bodies at the very moment the Vatican is pushing for unity. Civil authorities in some regions demolished underground evangelical and Catholic churches in advance of new regulations dictating terms of religious expression that came into effect Feb. 1 and inflict harsh new penalties on religious bodies not registered with the government. He added the situation was demoralizing also to officially approved bishops who are trying to work for the Church’s freedom within the system.

However, the cardinal added that if Pope Francis signs an agreement with the government, “I will keep quiet” and tell the underground Church to not oppose the Holy Father’s decision.


Crippled Episcopal Authority

Rachel Zhu Xiaohong, a scholar of religious studies at the Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Register that the division of the Church, caused by the formation of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 1957, has severely affected the bishops’ ability to govern and teach.

This division is also considered a major factor in the Catholic Church’s sluggish growth.

Zhu said in China about 60 bishops were recognized by the government and the Vatican; seven bishops were recognized only by the government; and about 30 bishops were recognized only by the Vatican. Zhu said any deal would doubtless involve normalizing the status of the seven bishops. But so far, she noted, nothing has been said collectively about the status of the 30 underground bishops not recognized currently by the state, although it was reported that the two bishops asked by the Vatican to step aside will be recognized by the government.

“If the bishops become normalized, the bishops’ conference can fully exercise its authority,” she said.

Zhu said one theory of a possible Vatican-China agreement is the bishops’ conference would select a set of candidates, the government would approve those up for election, and the Vatican would give a “Yes” or “No” to the nominees.

But she said the issue of the Patriotic Association and its role in the Catholic Church would also have to be reconsidered. The Patriotic Association has authority over the bishops’ conference in China and officially maintains the Chinese Catholic Church is independent, with its own self-management and democratic autonomy, which is not acceptable for many Chinese Catholics.

The experience of Catholics in China, both in the underground and the official church communities, varies widely by the region, Zhu explained.

Some underground communities worship in the open; others experience persecution amid occasional crackdowns. Some Catholics go to both underground and official churches, but other Catholics only have the experience of worshipping underground or in official churches.

They all pray the Mass following the same Chinese translation, read the same Bible and have the same Catechism of the Catholic Church.


However, she said two vocal camps in the Church — one in favor of a deal, the other against — are setting themselves up as the good Catholics loyal to the Pope and calling the others betrayers of the faith, precisely the opposite attitude that Benedict XVI asked of the Church’s members in China.

“The Chinese Catholic faithful are suffering because of these new divisions,” said Zhu, adding that she believes most Catholics, including those in the underground, fall somewhere in the middle.


What Advantage to the Church?

George Weigel, prominent St. John Paul II biographer and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, told the Register the Church will have “zero evangelical advantage” by accommodating China’s government.

“That is not only the lesson of the failed Ostpolitik; it’s elementary common sense,” he said, referring to the Vatican’s Cold War diplomacy with communist nations under the orbit of the Soviet Union. 

Weigel said there are two issues involved in dealing with the Chinese government: the appointment of bishops and then, down the line, diplomatic relations.

He questioned whether including the government in the process of appointing bishops would improve the pastoral care in the Church.

“I don’t see how that happens by giving the regime a role in what ought to be an internal Church affair.”

However, David Mulroney, president and vice chancellor of St. Michael’s College in Toronto and Canada’s former ambassador to China, told the Register that “some kind of accommodation,” while not compromising on the nonnegotiable, is essential for the life of the Church in China.

Mulroney cautioned that many in the Chinese bureaucracy are opposed to a deal with the Vatican because they fear faith that transcends national borders. At the same time, the former ambassador said China also seeks recognition as a global player, and Western governments could leverage that desire by carefully encouraging religious freedom in ways that do not embarrass the Chinese.   

He added that Catholics in official churches are trying to make the best of the limited freedoms they have. The state-approved church community does not have the freedom to speak out against national government policy, including the strictly enforced policy of two children per family, but its social organizations have acted on their faith by saving women from forced abortion, protecting the poor from economic exploitation, and aiding those afflicted by natural disasters.

“At its parish level and outreach, it certainly reflects the teaching of the Church,” he said.

Even in the absence of an accord with the government, the Catholic Church in China needs to begin reconciling over the wounds caused by the 60 years since the establishment of the Patriotic Association, explained Rachel Zhu.

She added the Church needs to follow through on Cardinal Parolin’s assurance the Catholics in the underground, particularly those in the older generation, are not being made to surrender the faith they sacrificed to maintain, and their sufferings will not be forgotten.

Zhu said putting off reconciliation risks the current wounds in the Chinese Church becoming passed onto the next generation, and hardening.

“The reconciliation process needs to start right now — before this generation perishes.”  

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.


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