Nearly 70 years after Mao Zedong expelled Pope Pius XII’s representatives from the People’s Republic of China, the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are now reportedly on the verge on signing a deal that could end the decades-long religious and diplomatic staredown. While the specifics of the deal remain private for now, a source within the Vatican said that it lays the groundwork for collaboration between the Vatican and the CCP in the selection and appointment of bishops on the Chinese mainland. It is unlikely that the agreement would re-establish formal diplomatic relations between the two sides, but even the simplest deal would be an historic moment, possibly paving the path to full diplomatic relations.
A Long Road to This Moment
After the Vatican and the Party severed ties in 1949, Chinese Catholics (as well as those of other faiths) who continued to practice their religion became easy targets for the new regime, especially during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Catholics and other Christians were labelled as “enemies of the people,” stripped of property and imprisoned for their beliefs. Party officials insisted they could not be true to communist ideology if they believed in religion.
But for Mao and his successors, the problem was a much more fundamental question of who ought to have final authority. The one-party state could not tolerate any sort of external check on the party’s ability to dictate ideology. For faithful Catholics, for instance, to take their cues, spiritual or otherwise, from the pope and not the chairman, could potentially disrupt the political order. Moreover, although it was until recently extremely rare for non-Italians to become pope, anyone, from any country, could sit in the chair of St. Peter. Could Mao—or President Xi Jinping, for that matter—afford to have Chinese citizens obeying a foreigner (or perhaps even worse, albeit unlikely, a Chinese pope)? And what if someday the pope were an American?
The mistrust of foreign-controlled or -influenced religious movements isn’t just a product of Chinese communist ideology, either. Suspicion of upstart religious movements runs deep in Chinese history. Indeed, in the mid-19th century—only a short while ago in historical terms—the Qing Dynasty put down the Taiping Rebellion, a mass uprising led by a failed civil servant who came to believe he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ who had come to rid China of idolatry. The faith-based rebellion, which claimed as many as 30 million lives all told, joined with others in leaving an indelible mark on China and its leaders.
From the Catholic Church’s perspective, the ultimate authority of appointing bishops—at least since the Investiture Controversy— has rested with the pope. The 1965 Christus Dominus, a decree passed by the Second Vatican Council, further emphasized that the authority of appointing bishops does not rest with governments: “For the purpose of duly protecting the freedom of the Church and of promoting more conveniently and efficiently the welfare of the faithful, this holy council desires that in future no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be granted to civil authorities. The civil authorities, on the other hand, whose favorable attitude toward the Church the sacred synod gratefully acknowledges and highly appreciates, are most kindly requested voluntarily to renounce the above-mentioned rights and privileges which they presently enjoy by reason of a treaty or custom, after discussing the matter with the Apostolic See.” Thus the CCP’s refusal to allow the pope to carry out one of his core duties has been a sticking point since 1949. Clearly, neither Xi nor his predecessors heeded the “kind request” from 1965.
The Global Times, a generally aggressive and hawkish party-aligned newspaper in China, has pointed to one historical precedent for a deal that would supposedly satisfy these seemingly intractable positions. In 1996, the Catholic Church struck a deal with Vietnam in the selection of bishops in which “bishops [must] gain approval from both the Vatican and the Vietnamese government.” Notwithstanding the arrangement, Vietnam and the Vatican still have not reestablished diplomatic relations—which Vietnam severed in 1975—despite ongoing negotiations since 2007.
Oddly enough, it was in the same Global Times article mentioned above that Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at the Center for European Studies at Renmin University, succinctly explained the controversy over the deal and the importance that the Catholic Church places on the selection of bishops: “The bottom line for the Vatican is the role of the pope in the appointment of bishops: Without this there is no Catholic Church. How this role can be defined then will be in the negotiations.”
A Big Deal?
There are currently two Catholic “churches” in China: an underground one that is loyal to the papacy and a Party-sanctioned one known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA). The underground church is led by Vatican-appointed bishops and recognizes the authority of Pope Francis as the head of the Church, while the CCPA does not. The CCPA is run by CCP-appointed bishops, who are sometimes excommunicated by the Holy See for accepting the position without papal approval.
The much-hyped—and much-maligned—deal reportedly under discussion would create some sort of collaboration between the Vatican and the CCP in the appointment of bishops, with the pope granting final approval to (or withholding it from) all candidates. On the surface, the CCP would get what it wants from such a deal—party-approved picks for bishops, as well as the international prestige of working with the Vatican—and the Vatican would also get what it desires—rapprochement with China and legal status for the church. This seemingly simple workaround should unite the illegal underground church with the state-sponsored one.
China’s “Religious Affairs Regulations,” which took effect in 2018, added additional reasons for the Catholic Church to renew its search for a compromise with the CCP. Under Xi’s rule, the CCP has cracked down on groups that could potentially threaten the party, passing a 2017 law constraining non-governmental organizations, as well as laws restricting freedom ostensibly designed to combat threats from terrorism and in cyberspace. Religion was just another obvious area that the state needed to regulate—the next natural step in what is rapidly becoming a turbocharged Orwellian surveillance state.
The religious regulations essentially give the CCP carte blanche to crack down on religious practice, and since the underground Catholic church is technically illegal, priests and worshipers are all at risk of imprisonment. Article 63 of the law states, “Using religion to harm national security or public safety, undermine ethnic unity, divide the nation . . . impeding the administration of public order . . . where a crime is constituted, criminal responsibility is pursued in accordance with law.” The vagueness of what any of these terms mean gives the CCP the ability to control the affairs of any religion as it sees fit. The CCP similarly uses the vagueness of its laws regarding “national security” to imprison anyone outspoken on sensitive issues. Signing a collaboration deal with the CCP might therefore offer Catholics in China a measure of protection from this law. It is worth noting that as recently as last May Peter Shao Zhumin, an underground bishop, was detained for seven months by the CCP without charge. The detention of Shao came before the religious regulation took effect, so this could be a harbinger of things to come for more priests in China if some sort of deal is not reached.
A Controversial Deal?
The deal, however, is not without controversy within the Catholic Church. Two “underground” bishops would reportedly be moved into different positions as a result of the deal. One bishop, Bishop Zhuang Jianjian, was asked to retire by the Vatican’s team in Beijing during negotiations. He would be replaced by Huang Bingzhang, who was excommunicated by the pope in 2011 for accepting his episcopal appointment without papal consent. Huang is also a member of China’s National People’s Congress—a political office—even though the Church’s canon law specifically states, “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power.” To complicate this particular matter, Zhuang refused to retire after meeting with a papal delegation, which was travelling to China to negotiate terms of the deal, in Beijing in December 2017.
Another bishop, Guo Xijin, essentially would be demoted to be an assistant to Zhan Silu, “a government-appointed bishop whose consecration the Vatican had previously declared illegal.” Also, as a part of the deal, five CCP-appointed bishops will ask for a pardon from Pope Francis and rejoin the Catholic Church. Having these bishops re-enter the church would be a boon for China, and the retirement and demotion of the “loyal” bishops removes two problems for the CCP.
After being asked to retire, Bishop Zhuang gave a letter to his friend, Cardinal Joseph Zen. Zen, the retired archbishop of Hong Kong, has been a vocal critic of any rapprochement between the Vatican and China for many years. Troubled by the Vatican’s actions, Zen travelled to Vatican City for an audience with Pope Francis in hopes of addressing whatever the Vatican had been negotiating with China.
In a Facebook post, Zen claimed that the pope was not on the same page as negotiators in Beijing. He said that Francis told the negotiators, “not to create another Mindszenty case,” referring to József Mindszenty, a Catholic bishop in Hungary who spoke out against the communist regime there. Mindszenty was imprisoned in 1949 for a laundry list of crimes and was freed during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. After the Soviet invasion of Hungary, he lived in the American Embassy for another 15 years before being allowed to live in exile in Rome.
In response to Zen’s allegations that the deal sells out Chinese Catholics, the Vatican released a statement indirectly criticizing Zen for his comments, saying that some within the Church were “fostering confusion and controversy,” and that the pope is aware of all facets of the negotiations. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, said, “The Holy Father personally follows current contacts with the authorities of the People’s Republic of China. All his collaborators act in concert with him. No one takes private initiatives. Frankly, any other kind of reasoning seems to me to be out of place.”
A source within the Vatican explained the rationale for the deal in quite simple terms: “It is not a great agreement, but we don’t know what the situation will be like in ten or 20 years. . . . Afterwards we will still be like a bird in a cage, but the cage will be bigger. . . . It is not easy. Suffering will continue. We will have to fight for every centimeter to increase the size of the cage.” This somber admission demonstrates the importance that the Church is placing on making life for Catholics in China as safe as possible. The situation is not the best one, but it is more important, from the Vatican’s perspective, to get a foot in the door than to be shut out completely.
After Beijing’s implementation of the new religious regulations, Catholics across the country will be in danger of arrest and the future of the Church in China will be at stake if the Vatican cannot cooperate with the CCP on the selection of bishops. Following the “Vietnam model” is perhaps the best compromise available for the Vatican—if it feels that it must compromise in order to slightly open the door in China. An editorial in the Global Times claims that full restoration of diplomatic ties will eventually occur, but if the Vatican has not been able to do so with Vietnam, there’s no strong reason to think it likely to occur in the short term with China.
The deal’s scope is quite limited, and cooperation on the appointment of bishops will only help to protect Catholics from rampant persecution under the new laws. However, even a minor compromise on the Vatican’s part will trigger protests from Catholics from across the world. Many will see any deal as evidence that the Pope and the Vatican are ceding their moral authority by cooperating with a totalitarian regime that persecutes millions of its citizens; meanwhile the CCP would receive the international prestige of having successfully worked with the Catholic Church. And in an open letter, prominent Catholics warn the Vatican of Xi’s duplicity and reputation for breaking deals: “We are worried that the agreement would not only fail to guarantee the limited freedom desired by the Church, but also damage the Church’s holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity, and deal a blow to the Church’s moral power.”
One of Pope Francis’ goals during his papacy has been to try to foster a better relationship with China. This deal would seem to accomplish that goal, uniting the two Catholic churches in China, comprised of an estimated 12 million Chinese, and paving the way for normalization of relations between the two countries—but at what cost?