China & Vatican flags. Image via Shutterstock
Part 1 of a three part series examining the situation of the Church in China.
In recent weeks, China has become the focus of international attention and opprobrium, first for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak and, more recently, for its treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang autonomous region and its crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.
While Catholic China watchers have long focused on the ongoing human rights crisis in the country, broader media attention has fallen on the issue just weeks before the controversial Vatican-China deal is set for renewal, placing the Holy See’s most delicate diplomatic relationship under a microscope.
The 2018 agreement between the Holy See and the Chinese Communist Party was intended to end a decades long schism among Chinese Catholics, between the underground Church loyal to Rome and the Communist-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
While the text of the agreement has never been released, key among its provisions is a compromise on the appointment of bishops, with communist authorities given the chance to feed into lists of prospective candidates as the pope made an appointment.
This provision was highlighted by the Holy See Press Office in February, following a meeting between Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s chief diplomatic officer, and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi.
Calling a meeting between the two “cordial”, the Holy See said that “in particular, there was highlighted the importance of the Provisional Accord on the nomination of bishops, signed 22 September 2018, renewing the willingness to continue the institutional dialogue at the bilateral level to promote the life of the Catholic Church and the good of the Chinese people.”
But ahead of the deal’s possible renewal, what progress has been made?
The Vatican has shown a willingness to bend considerably to accommodate China.
Following the 2018 deal’s agreement, eight previously excommunicated bishops of the communist CPCA have been accepted into formal communion with Rome. In some cases, underground bishops – including some who were arrested and jailed for their loyalty to the pope – were asked to step down from their sees and serve under the communist collaborators. The head and deputy head of the communist-sanctioned Chinese bishops’ conference attended the 2019 Synod on Young People, Faith and Vocation at the Vatican.
In return, it is not clear what China has offered. At least 50 mainland dioceses remain without bishops and, far from ushering in a new era for a unified Catholic Church in China, the results of the 2018 deal appear to be total gridlock on appointments and continued persecution for the underground Church.
One senior Vatican official at the Congregation for Bishops told CNA that the Vatican-China deal was a diplomatic point of contact, but was of limited practical use.
“[The Secretariat of] State use it as the point of dialogue, it’s a subject for their talks,” he said, “but practically it is an absolute impediment to appointments.”
The official said that, despite the Vatican’s recognition of the eight communist appointed bishops in 2018, there remains little sign that Beijing is in a hurry to reciprocate.
“The process continues as it always has,” the official told CNA, “there are terna, the Holy Father makes a selection.”
“But now,” he said, “nothing is announced until [the CCP] give their own placet, so there will be harmony. But there is no harmony, and so there are no announcements.”
Despite this, China has made some concessions to the Vatican, recognizing two underground bishops in June.
Bishop Peter Li Huiyuan was recognized as the Bishop of Fengxian last month, more than two years after succeeding to the role after the death of Bishop Lucas Li Jinfeng. Both bishops were leaders of the underground Church.
The communist authorities also recognized and installed Peter Lin Jiashan as the Bishop of Fuzhou last month, despite his resistance to registering with the government or signing statements acknowledging communist primacy in Church affairs.
Bishop Peter is 86, and during his installation he pledged to serve the Gospel in his leadership of the diocese, but also to support the state program to “sinicize the Church in our country.”
Since the 2018 deal, the communist government has pushed forward with an unsparing program of “sinicization” of religion and culture in the country. Regular reports of churches being demolished, priests and bishops being harassed and arrested, and strict censorship being imposed on religious teaching continue to emerge from China.
In Xinjiang, anywhere from 900,000 to 1.8 million mostly-Muslim Uyghurs are estimated to be in a system of more than 1,300 detention camps set up by Chinese authorities, ostensibly for “re-education” purposes. Survivors have reported indoctrination, beatings, forced labor, forced abortions and sterilizations, and torture in the camps.
Reports from within the camps include accounts of indoctrination lessons, at the end of which inmates are asked “is there a God?” with “no” being the only acceptable answer. Muslim inmates have also reported being force-fed pork and alcohol.
In other parts of the country, Catholic bishops have been subject to arrest or eviction from their homes, after state officials attempted to force them to sign documents acknowledging the sovereignty and doctrinal primacy of the Communist Party.
While human rights groups have condemned Chinese actions as a “slow genocide” of religious and ethnic minorities, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin has defended the policy of sinicization, saying that it is complimentary with the Church’s own principle of inculturation.
“These two terms, ‘inculturation’ and ‘sinicization,’ refer to each other without confusion and without opposition,” Parolin told Chinese state media in 2019.
“For the future, it will certainly be important to deepen this theme, especially the relationship between ‘inculturation’ and ‘sinicization,’ keeping in mind how the Chinese leadership has been able to reiterate their willingness not to undermine the nature and the doctrine of each religion,” Parolin said.
Despite public Vatican insistence that relations with China remain cordial and constructive, the South China Morning Post has reported that Holy See diplomats regularly raise the issue of imprisoned or “disappeared” Catholic bishops behind the scenes.
According to a source familiar with Vatican-China negotiations, the Post said, “[the names of missing or arrested bishops] were brought up every time but it was always met with excuses, such as the local authorities were not collaborating.”
Both China and the Vatican have signaled their readiness to extend the 2018 agreement for another two years. But with global attention now focused on China’s human rights atrocities, those private negotiations have been dragged into the wider public eye.
“What are [the Secretariat of State] to do?” the Vatican official asked CNA. “Are things worse now than in 2018? Perhaps. Certainly no better for the Church. But you cannot just walk away.”
The Holy See, especially Cardinal Parolin, have stressed the importance of taking a long-term view in establishing the faith and securing the place of the Church in China.
But with more than a million people in concentration camps on the mainland, and tensions rising around Hong Kong and Taiwan, it may prove increasingly untenable for the Church to be seen to negotiate, still less come to terms with the most prolific human rights abuser in the world, whatever the possible gain.