What’s Happening in Vatican-China talks? The Necessary Background

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Photo:  Reuters

By Phil Lawler, Catholic Culture, Feb 16, 2018

By all accounts, the Vatican is moving quickly toward a diplomatic agreement with China. But the situation is complicated, and the reports from China often contradictory. What should interested Catholics know about the developing drama? Let me do my best to answer some basic questions.

The Background

What do we know for sure about the situation?

Not much—and that’s the first important caveat that covers much of the information set forth below.

Neither the Vatican nor the Chinese government is offering any detailed information about the proposed agreement. That perfectly normal; in any negotiations, both sides ordinarily choose to avoid public disclosure. That normal diplomatic discretion is accentuated in this case, because both parties, the Vatican and the Beijing regime, are notoriously close-mouthed about their affairs.

Moreover, the situation facing the Church in China is also murky. There are two strains of Catholicism on the mainland: the “official” Church and the “underground” Church. But the lines of demarcation are often blurred.

What does this mean: the “official” and “underground” Church?

Since the Communist regime came to power in China, it has refused to accept the Vatican’s authority to appoint Catholic bishops. Fearful of control by a “foreign power,” Beijing has set up its own authorized Catholic hierarchy; this is the “official” Church, which is supervised by the Catholic Patriotic Association, a government-sponsored body. The “underground” Church is composed of Catholics who refuse to accept this structure, and maintain a direct allegiance to the Holy See.

So is the “underground” Church suffering under persecution today?

Since the 1980s the Beijing regime has not engaged in overt persecution; Catholic bishops and priests are no longer routinely rounded up and sent to labor camps. But clerics of the “underground” Church are often harassed, sometimes arrested, frequently interrogated, and pressed to join the Patriotic Association.

At different times and places, the “underground” Church can actually function openly. But because all services are unauthorized, there is always some fear of a government crackdown.

So are there two competing, parallel hierarchies?

No, again it’s more complicated. Some of the Chinese bishops appointed by the Holy See have eventually gained recognition from the Chinese government, and some government-appointed bishops have sought and obtained the blessing of the Holy See.

However, there are still bishops at each end of the spectrum: the “underground” bishops who have not received (and do not want) government approval, and the “official” bishops who have not sought Vatican approval.

Aren’t the “official” bishops excommunicated?

The Code of Canon Law stipulates that anyone who is ordained as a bishop without the approval of the Holy See incurs the punishment of excommunication—as does any other bishop who participates in the ordination ceremony. In China, the Vatican has acknowledged that some bishops have participated in these ceremonies under duress, against their will, and so they are not excommunicated. In fact the Holy See has avoided openly declaring excommunications—presumably in order to keep doors open for reconciliation. Still, in some cases the excommunication of “official” bishops has been pronounced.

Apart from the ban of excommunication, there is another serious obstacle to the acceptance of “official” bishops by the Vatican. Some of these prelates are, reportedly, living openly with common-law wives and children.

The Proposed Agreement

So what sort of agreement is expected?

According to multiple published reports, the Vatican is ready to strike a deal in which China would be allowed to choose new bishops, with the Holy See having veto power over the appointments. (Here let me reiterate that we do not know the terms of the deal, but informed sources in Rome have not contradicted the public reports.)

Also, Vatican representatives have reportedly spoken to several “underground” bishops, urging them to resign so that they might be replaced by “official” prelates. (Again informed sources have tacitly acknowledged that these reports are accurate.) At least two “underground” bishops have indicated that they would be willing to accept the Vatican’s wishes—that they will step down if the Pope asks them to do so.

Would this deal allow for the replacement of the Vatican’s bishops by Chinese prelates who have been excommunicated, or who are now living with concubines?

Yes, it would. Presumably the Vatican would lift the excommunications. The status of the bishops’ wives and families is reportedly one of the remaining sticking-points in the negotiations.

The Opposition

But wouldn’t this deal be a victory for the Communist Party in its quest for control over the Catholic Church, and a repudiation of the loyal Chinese Catholics who have suffered for their fidelity to the Holy See?

So it would seem. That is the argument made by Cardinal Joseph Zen, who is leading the opposition to the proposed agreement. At the very least, it is clear that the Vatican would be asking the faithful of the “underground” Church, who have already sacrificed a great deal, to make another major sacrifice.

So why would the Vatican even consider this agreement?

First, because an agreement might provide for the unification of the Catholic Church in China, allowing for open worship by all the faithful. Second, because an accord might pave the way for the resumption of formal diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the world’s most populous nation, which were broken off in 1951.

Pope Benedict XVI emphasized, in his June 2007 letter to the Chinese Church, that all the faithful should work toward unity. He indicated a willingness to work toward regularization of the “official” Church, and a desire to reassure Beijing that the Vatican had no interest in seeking control over China’s internal affairs. At the same time he insisted that the Catholic Church could not accept political control over her hierarchy, and he explicitly rejected any role for the Patriotic Association.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin has justified the current talks with Beijing by referring to Benedict’s demand for unity. Cardinal Zen complains that the Secretary of State has not addressed the former Pope’s companion demand for the protection of the Church’s autonomy.

What has the Chinese government said about the proposed accord?

While the Beijing regime has offered few public comments, the officials responsible for religious affairs have said that all Catholics should welcome the agreement.

What have leaders of the “underground” Church said?

Not much—at least not openly. The reports of an imminent agreement put leaders of the “underground” Church in a difficult position. If the deal will be struck in any case—with or without their assent—they will have to live with the consequences. Open public opposition at this point might make their lives still more difficult.

Also, the leaders of the “underground” Church do not have access to the government-controlled media—unless, of course, they are making statements of which the government approves. One “underground” bishop has said that loyal Catholics will accept the Pope’s decisions, confident in his leadership; his message has gained a public hearing. We have no reliable way of knowing how many other “underground” Catholics would take the same stance. Cardinal Zen insists that many agree with his opposition to the deal, and reliable Catholic outlets such as the AsiaNews agency report widespread anxiety among the Chinese faithful.

Would the agreement protect the religious freedom of Catholics in China?

Vatican negotiators evidently believe that Beijing is ready to give public acceptance to Catholic worship. But would the Communist regime allow for the appointment of bishops who question a materialistic ideology? For the evangelization of young people? For overt opposition to immoral government policies, such as the rigorous birth-control laws that are still in force?

Those are the crucial questions. We don’t know the answers.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.