The Catholic Church in China: One Year After the Sino-Vatican Agreement

By: Beatrice Leung

November 26, 2019

Vatican Diplomacy in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

In 1987, Beijing and the Vatican began informal contacts and formal negotiations aimed at re-establishing their diplomatic relations, broken in 1951. The Sino-Vatican negotiation has been on and off for nearly 40 years (1978–2019), trying to resolve thorny questions relating to complicated church-state relations. The difficulty of negotiation stemmed from a conflict of teaching authorities between the dialectical atheist Marxist-Leninism plus Mao Zedong Thought and the religious idealism of Catholicism. The clash between the Vatican and China can be resolved by negotiation with the spirit of compromise and tolerance.

For thousands of years in imperial China, religions have been monitored by the state. Recently, Westerners have begun to realize how “the China order” has aimed to achieve a world empire embracing the ideologies of Confucianism and legalism. Bolshevik Communism only added a certain flavor to the already authoritarian rule of China. 

In modern history, the Catholic Church, with its transnational organization, has served as a threat to some regimes. For example, the role played by Pope John Paul II to pull down European Communism in the 1980s alerted Beijing. In fact, the degree to which Beijing tightens up or loosens control of religion, including Catholicism, in the name of religious freedom has changed according to the political climate. 

For the Vatican, the Sino-Vatican reconciliation would provide a warmer sociopolitical environment for the development of the Chinese Catholic Church. For atheist Communist rulers in China in the 1980s, the Sino-Vatican rapprochement would have served its political purpose to further isolate Taiwan from the international community and forced the latter to the negotiation table with terms dictated by Beijing. 

The Sino-Vatican negotiation can be boiled down into resolving problems in some major areas: the appointment of Chinese bishops, the move of the Apostolic Nunciature from Taipei to Beijing with minimum hurt to Taiwan, the status of the government-staffed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and relationship between local Chinese bishops and the papal representative in Beijing. Before these technical questions could be resolved on the negotiation table, Beijing in 1987 suggested that it has the right of bishop appointment, leaving the Holy See only to approve bishops. This suggestion was rejected by the Vatican in accordance with canon law that holds only the Holy See has the right of bishop appointment.

On September 22, 2018, Beijing and the Vatican signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of Chinese bishops. The agreement gave to the Chinese government the right to appoint bishops; the pope was given veto power. Given Beijing’s poor track record of honoring international treaties (the agreement with WTO, for example), within the Church there were different opinions on the agreement. Take Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong, for example. He cogently advised the Holy Father not to sign the agreement unless more freedom were granted to the Chinese Catholic Church as a sign of the good will from China. In the Western world, many in political circles and academic fields did not think that the Vatican should sign the agreement, seen as in the interest of Beijing but not in the interest of the Church. They have witnessed how after China became a big power, it began its own interpretation of international documents. Even in the Trump administration, which usually has little consideration for religion in foreign relations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed that the U.S. government did not support the agreement, as it is only in the interest of the Chinese Communist Party and not the Catholic Church.

Chinese religious cadres holding the agreement demanded the registration of priests as a prerequisite to pastoral work. Priests would have to sign a document to accept the “self-administration, independent management” of church affairs. The terminology “independence” has been a very sensitive issue within the Chinese Church. Clergy of both the government-sanctioned and underground sectors hesitated on what to do. Thus, a request was sent to the Vatican for guidance. The Vatican sent back “Pastoral guidelines of the Holy See concerning the civil registration of clergy in China.” The document expressed that the Roman Curia understands the complicated situation in China and sympathetically expressed how so-called “independence” has a more flexible explanation. There, the Vatican clearly asked the Chinese clergy to act according to their own conscience on signing the document.

In 2019, Beijing leaders did not pay much attention to minor issues such as the implementation of Sino-Vatican Agreement due to the current trade war between China and the United States. However, religious security has already been uplifted to the level of national security, with a tightening state control over religion. The agreement added fuel to the fire when religious cadres forced the underground sector of the church to be Sinicized, or controlled by the party. 

On October 28, 2019, the first priestly ordinations occurred after the Sino-Vatican Agreement in Mindong, a largely unofficial community. It was a "pilot program" as part of the agreement. The ordinations were officiated by Bishop Zhan Silu, who was excommunicated and then reconciled by Pope Francis. Msgr. Guo Xijin, who accepted a demotion from ordinary bishop to auxiliary bishop at the request of the pope, was absent together with a large group of Catholics. The Chinese government does not recognize Msgr. Guo because he refuses to adhere to the "independence" of the Chinese Church. 

The confidence between Beijing and the Vatican has not been improved with the signing of the agreement. In an international conference held in Fatima, Portugal on October 21, 2019, Beijing tried to pressure the organizing committee to cancel the invitation of two Hong Kong representatives: Cardinal Joseph Zen, the archenemy of Beijing, and Martin Lee, the patriarch of democracy of Hong Kong. Chinese pressured for the invitations to be cancelled because the Sino-Vatican Agreement, as well as the on-going protests in Hong Kong, were on the agenda.

In conclusion, the agreement did not serve much of the Catholic purpose, but assisted Xi Jinping’s policy of Sinicization of religion.

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