After more than six decades of rupture, the Vatican and China took the first step to improving relations this weekend with the signing of a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops — one of the major causes of tensions between the two states since they broke off relations in 1951.
However, the settlement has divided China’s Catholics. Some want to extend the new-found friendliness towards the Vatican; others fear yet more repression as the Vatican cedes control to the Chinese Communist Party.
When ties were severed in 1951 after the establishment of the communist state in China, Pope Pius XII excommunicated two bishops appointed by Beijing and the regime responded by expelling the apostolic nuncio, giving rise to two types of churches: one clandestine and the other “patriotic”, a byword for state-approved.
The “patriotic” church, officially called the Catholic Patriotic Association of China, is not recognised by the Vatican. It was created and is strictly controlled by the Communist Party, while the clandestine answers only to the Holy See. In all these years of dispute, the Chinese government carried out various episcopal ordinations without the consent of the Vatican, while the Holy See claimed such appointments were the exclusive decision of the Pope. The Vatican has sought for years to unify the two communities, and this agreement, theoretically, puts an end to that conflict, although not everyone is happy with the pact.
For decades, many Chinese Catholics have faced the risk of being arrested and persecuted for worshipping in clandestine churches run by bishops secretly appointed from Rome. A report by the watchdog group Freedom House estimated that a third of all religious believers in China who belong to a faith group face “high” to “very high” levels of persecution, which ranges from bureaucratic harassment and economic exploitation to mandatory political “re-education”, harsh prison terms and even violence.
According to Freedom House, the persecution of these religious groups in the country has intensified since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Under his mandate, repressive policies have expanded and evolved. A tighter legal environment has been established.
The clampdown has expanded to target more state-registered congregations. And the regime has been adapting religious controls to a new technological landscape, enhancing electronic surveillance in churches and imprisoning believers for sharing content on social media or using tools to bypass Internet censorship.
According to several reports, the government recently initiated a new wave of crackdowns on religious congregations in both Beijing and several provinces, destroying crosses, burning bibles, closing churches and forcing Christian believers to sign papers renouncing their faith.
This new pressure from the authorities to bring the huge number of unregistered churches under government control has raised concerns about increased restrictions among some of these religious communities and has led several dissidents to criticise the Pope’s agreement.
Among the main critics of the historic rapprochement is Cardinal Joseph Zen, archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong, who has spent much of his career helping Catholics in the spotlight of the communist regime. Zen, who called such an agreement a “betrayal”, criticised the lack of transparency on both sides, and derided the idea that the accord was “provisional”. In Zen’s view, those who back the deal want “compromise without limits, they are already willing to completely surrender”.
In response to the criticism, the director of the Holy See’s press office, Greg Burke, declared that “this agreement is not political, it is pastoral. What it means is that believers in China have bishops who are in communion with the Pope, but at the same time are recognised by the Chinese authorities”.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China didn’t clarify too many details about the pact, but emphasised in a brief statement that both parties “will continue their communications to promote the progress and advancement of bilateral relations”. Although the full content of the agreement was not published, it is believed that, in the future, the Chinese authorities will propose state-sanctioned bishops and these will then be validated by the Pope.
For some, this may be a positive step. In the view of several specialists, the agreement mainly refers to the division of the sphere of interests in China between politics and religion, which could also be helpful for the further social modernisation of the country.
And the presence of the Vatican in China might be positive in helping keep tabs on human right issues for religious groups and possibly stopping violations.
Make no mistake, China is central to the Pope’s vision of his church Asia. Catholicism is still a small minority faith in almost all Asian countries; it accounts for less than 1 per cent of the population in China.
But Asia accounts 60 per cent of the global population and is also the fastest growing part of the world economically. For the Catholic Church, paying the region insufficient attention would be failing in its mission to maintain Catholicism as a universal religion. The only strategy for the Vatican is to negotiate, even if it has to accept the limitations of authoritarian regimes.