Vatican hits stumbling block on road to rebuilding ties with China

Mimi Lau
·9-min read

This is the first in a three-part series examining the role of the Roman Catholic Church in China and how the difficult and complex relationship between the Vatican and Beijing has shifted and evolved since the Communist Party broke diplomatic ties in 1951. The first story investigates an agreement signed two years ago that suggested both sides seemed to be showing signs of compromise. What is at stake in this discussion and is there any potential for common ground between Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping?

When Beijing and the Vatican reached a provisional agreement in 2018 over who had the authority to appoint Roman Catholic bishops in China, it signalled a possible breakthrough in a troubled relationship stretching back six decades. It seems the signals were wrong.

Details of the pact – forged after more than three decades of negotiations – have never been made public, but the agreement marked the communist state’s first indication it was ready to share some authority with the Pope over control of China’s Catholic Church. It was hoped it would help in healing a rift from the 1940s when Beijing kicked the church out of China and later started an autonomous Catholic church, independent of Rome.

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China open to closer relationship with Vatican, Beijing says

The schism directly affects around 12 million Catholics in China, who are roughly evenly split into a so-called underground church that looks to the Pope for authority, while others attend Sunday mass in state-run churches controlled by Beijing’s Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

It is understood that Pope Francis has veto power over bishop candidates proposed by Beijing, but this has never been tested. Anthony Yao Shun was installed last August by Chinese authorities as bishop for Jining diocese in Inner Mongolia, but he was a bishop candidate chosen by the Vatican more than six years ago.

No new heads have been chosen for the 52 bishop-less dioceses in the two years since the agreement was signed, according to sources with knowledge of the negotiations, who declined to be named. “Bishop appointments were supposed to be the first obstacle to be resolved under the agreement, but while China and the Vatican have come closer, they are not interacting and conversing on the same bandwidth,” said one of the sources.

The 2018 provisional agreement expires in September, but Rome is reportedly ready to extend it by another two years, despite being unhappy with what it sees as a failure by Beijing to fulfil its part of the bargain.

Sources said the Vatican had waited for a reciprocal gesture from Beijing after Pope Francis accepted eight bishops appointed by Beijing without his approval – including one who had passed away – in December 2018, three months after the agreement was signed.

The complex history of the Catholic Church in China

They said the onus had been on China to respond in kind by recognising the same number of bishops, chosen by Rome, in the unregistered church. But China’s delay in acting had generated an undercurrent of frustration, the sources said, which had grown while Beijing was preoccupied by its deteriorating ties and trade conflicts with the US, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lawrence Reardon, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of New Hampshire, said he was not surprised by the lack of a breakthrough in relations between the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party. “The Vatican is faced with a more dogmatic CCP leadership that feels under siege from internal and external threats,” he said.

Despite the frustrations, there have been some signs of progress. Last month, Beijing recognised two authorities in the church loyal to the Vatican: Lin Jiashan, the 86-year-old archbishop of Fuzhou diocese in Fujian province, and Li Huiyuan of Fengxiang diocese in Shaanxi province. Another bishop, Jin Lugang of Nanyang diocese in Henan province, was recognised by Beijing in January 2019.

But there are still 23 bishops chosen by the Vatican awaiting recognition by Beijing, according to the sources. Beijing requires written approval for the clergy to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, followed by a pledge of loyalty and obedience to the party leadership.

This two-step verification is based solely on political reliability but the approved bishop is not authorised to minister to his congregation until a ceremonial public installation, but these processes can take years.

The recent moves by China to recognise Vatican-appointed church leaders are expected to help move relations forward when Beijing negotiators meet their Vatican counterparts later this month in Rome to discuss the extension to the agreement, which both sides are understood to be willing to go ahead with, according to the sources.

The Vatican press office in Rome and China’s Foreign Ministry in Beijing didn’t immediately respond to an email and fax seeking comment on the status of the agreement and the talks.

The South China Morning Post has learned that negotiators from both sides have met only once in the past 12 months, in November, after Beijing postponed discussions citing emergencies.

Inside China’s unofficial churches faith defies persecution

A Beijing-based religious affairs researcher said China was moving slowly because “the Cold War mentality still looms large in its strategic thinking” but said the Chinese leadership did have an interest in building ties with the Vatican because of its relations with Taiwan.

“To China, the Vatican is a hot potato. On one hand, China wishes to sever Taiwan's only European ally by building diplomatic ties with the Vatican, but the Vatican is not like Taiwan’s other allies that will succumb to chequebook diplomacy,” said the researcher, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

“And yet, Beijing is reluctant to move quickly ahead with the Vatican as it might trigger growth of religious believers, which is not aligned to the interest of the mainland government.”

Pope Francis has faced criticism within the church – including from two of his own cardinals – for sharing authority with a communist state. The attacks have included accusations of “selling out” the Chinese underground clergy, many of whom served jail terms for remaining loyal to Rome.

For the Vatican, issues with China are not just bilateral but multilateral. There are lots of forces pulling the Holy See in all directions so things might snap at any given time.

Francesco Sisci, Renmin University of China

Church followers are still subject to arrest and persecution in China. Underground bishop Augustine Cui Tai, of Xuanhua diocese of Hebei province in northern China, has not been seen since he was arrested last month. Another underground bishop, James Su Zhimin from Baoding diocese, also in Hebei, disappeared more than 20 years ago. Shanghai bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin remains under partial house arrest in the city’s Sheshan Seminary.

At the same time, Chinese authorities have acted to contain the growth in numbers of religious believers by banning minors from attending church services. Religious symbols over churches as well as mosques have been demolished or removed.

A source said the Vatican had adopted a quiet approach to avoid confrontation with China, as it would only trigger a harsher response resulting in more sufferings for mainland Catholics. The Vatican “has not forgotten” those that face persecution and their names are brought up in talks with Beijing, the source said.

China’s ‘repression against all religions continues to intensify’, US says

Francesco Sisci, an Italian sinologist with Renmin University of China, said global conservatives were also calling on the Pope to stand up to China on other religious and human rights abuses, including the treatment of Muslim Uygur people in Xinjiang province.

“For the Vatican, issues with China are not just bilateral but multilateral. There are lots of forces pulling the Holy See in all sorts of directions so things might snap at any given time,” Sisci said. “Beijing should not underestimate the value of friendship with the Vatican, especially in a time like this and should step up its game [by following through with the agreement],” he added.

In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic disruption, China faces a chorus of international criticism for weaponising its trading clout, ignoring complaints of its Asian neighbours over the building of military facilities on disputed islands in the South China Sea, and for imposing a national security law on Hong Kong to curb dissent.

Recognising the internal and external forces influencing Xi, Reardon said the Vatican would continue its low-key approach and avoid publicly criticising Beijing. “They are working behind the scenes to limit the party-state's crackdown on the unofficial church,” the University of New Hampshire expert said.

The Pope allows vocal critics, such as retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun from Hong Kong and Myanmar's Cardinal Charles Maung Bo to “make the world aware of the pernicious nature of the party-state and exert external pressure on the Chinese party-state”, he said.

“With the power of the Pope, he can stop Zen anytime he wants to, but he hasn't done that because his criticism is important. It serves him [by telling Beijing] you can have Zen or you can have me, who do you want to deal with? I think this is the way the church is trying to tell the official Chinese church that we are one family and we need to work together.”

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