What you need to know
China has struggled to find a solution to the religious resurgence that has been growing since the 1990s.
The authority to appoint bishops has been a key point of contention in the restoration of relations between China and the Vatican. Since formally severing relations in 1951, China has refused to recognize any papal authority over the Chinese Church, particularly in appointing episcopal leadership.
For its part, the Roman Church does not recognize the legitimacy of the seven bishops that have been named by the official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) in defiance of papal authority. As a result, Chinese Catholics are led by two separate sets of bishops, one recognized by Beijing, and the other by Rome.
Earlier this month, Cardinal John Tong Hon of the Diocese of Hong Kong announced that the Vatican and the Chinese government had come to an initial consensus on the appointment of bishops for the Catholic Church in China. Culminating one year of intense negotiations by a working group, this announcement marked a milestone of progress in the long, and at times highly acrimonious, relationship between Beijing and the Holy See.
The draft agreement charts a path to the resolution of these problems. While the Chinese side remains loathe to allow any foreign intrusion into the authority of the state-led CCPA, it seems prepared to recognise the ultimate authority of the pontiff to confirm or reject bishops that have been chosen by the Church in China, as well as a willingness to politically recognise the more than thirty underground bishops that have previously been appointed by Rome.
For its part, the Vatican would accept the apologies of the CCPA-appointed bishops and allow the Chinese government to conduct and act upon its own investigation of the three Chinese bishops whom the Church has accused of "moral misconduct."
The question is: why is this long-delayed rapprochement coming now?
On the part of the Vatican, the change is clearly generational, and reflects the personal priorities of Pope Francis. Although policy since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s has subjected Catholics to the laws and customs of secular authorities, decades of mistrust, dating back to the open persecution of the Chinese Church during the 1950s, have left China a rare outlier.
Papal diplomacy under Pope Francis has affirmed the need for accommodation with political authorities. In addition to China, Francis has initiated dialogue with old enemies, such as the Castro regime in Cuba, and sparked controversy by publicized meetings with Catholic social justice activists in such places as South Korea.
Dissenting voices within the Church have rejected any suggestion of ceding papal authority to the CCPA. Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong and the highest ranking cleric in China, has been particularly outspoken in his criticism of the planned reconciliation, suggesting to the Guardian that the pope is ‘a little naive’ and ‘doesn’t have the background to know the Communists in China’. Zen has elsewhere charged that the rapprochement would create a "false freedom" for Chinese Catholics, and proposing that under such circumstances, the faithful might simply pray at home.
China has much to gain from improved relations with the Vatican. In addition to improving its image with the United States and neighbors such as the largely Catholic Philippines, rapprochement with Rome has the potential to woo the Vatican away from its close relationship with Taiwan (including influential Catholics such as vice president Chen Chien-jen).
But the real benefit for China is domestic. China has struggled to find a solution to the religious resurgence that has been growing since the 1990s. The quiet downgrading of the campaign against Falun Gong suggests that authorities understand the limits and cost of criminalizing religion. Recently promulgated revisions of the 2005 Religious Affairs Regulations confirm continuation of the policy that accommodates the socially progressive elements of religion.
Most importantly, the policy of rapprochement with the Vatican removes the risk of China’s 12 million Catholics being siphoned off into an underground Church. Given the continued attempts to suppress underground Protestant churches, the benefits of having the Vatican as an ally in a legal Catholic Church are obvious.
Rome clearly recognizes what is at stake for China, and for the Chinese Church. Its own pronouncements on the issue highlight the principled subservience of the Church to secular authority and emphasize that China’s Catholics, including the unrecognized bishops, are law-abiding citizens. In what is perhaps a premonition of the new spirit of cooperation, the Vatican publicly denounced a priest in Hebei who had named himself bishop in the underground Church, and claimed the authority to elevate others within what would essentially be a splinter church.
While there is no way of predicting how the agreement will play out, official channels within both China and the Vatican have been publicly sanguine about the future, and agree that the task moving forward is to build trust, and that this will be a long-term process.
The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.
TNL Editor: Edward White