The long, winding road of China-Vatican relations

Appointment of bishops are the only priority at present but huge roadblocks set up by Party remain reporters, Hong Kong and Macau

Updated: May 11, 2017 07:35 AM GMT

A Chinese Catholic prepares the communion tray before the Palm Sunday Mass at an "underground" church on April 9 near Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China. The Vatican has been conducting closed door talks with Beijing in the hope of settling how bishops are appointed in the communist-run country. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/AFP)

Multiple sources in the Catholic Church have confirmed that the Holy See is not seeking diplomatic relations with Communist China but is singularly focused on resolving the thorny issue of the appointment of bishops.

Yet even this seemingly simple issue has been vexing the Vatican for several decades. Old hands in China church affairs know that even this goal has a long way to go, despite negotiations between the two parties picking up pace during 2016 after the establishment of a working team last April.

I have been telling people publicly the rumors are wrong in the press that say diplomatic relations will be set up, Bishop Stephen Lee of Macau told He reiterated that ongoing negotiations are focusing on an agreement on the appointment of bishops.

Cardinal Tong had said, which I agree totally, [the negotiation] is the first step of the long, long journey of the diplomatic development between the two, said Bishop Lee whose doctoral thesis was on China-Vatican relations.

The latest round of closed-door negotiations, the first in 2017, took place March 20-22 in Beijing. It was not announced if a preliminary agreement has been made, indeed the Vatican has strongly hinted that there may never be any formal announcement of a deal.

In a second article on the current round of China-Vatican relations published on Feb. 9, Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong said that an agreement on bishops' appointments would be a milestone in the normalization process of China-Vatican relations — although by no means the end of the process.

There are many issues that must be resolved and some are not mentioned in Cardinal Tong's two articles, Bishop Lee noted. In particular, the bishop noted the problem that the Vatican has with the Chinese government body, the National Congress for the Catholic Representatives (NCCR).

Comprising bishops, priests, nuns and laypeople, the congress is the highest governing body of the China Catholic Church that sits above the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association — an organization that controls the church for the ruling Communist Party — and the Chinese bishops' conference (CCPA-BCCCC), which unlike other bishop's conferences around the world is run by the Party not the Vatican.

Accordingly, the Vatican does not recognize these three national church bodies that do not recognize the pope as the highest authority in the church. The congress system is also something not found in the Catholic Church structure.

The concluding statement of the Ninth NCCR held Dec. 27-29 stated that one of the three core requirements was to keep the National Congress as the unchangeable foundation of the China Church.

Bishop Lee explained that one driver is money and jobs, with employees in all those structures that come from provincial, city and county levels. That's why they all are against the agreement (between Beijing and Rome) or they will be out of a job, said Bishop Lee, the former auxiliary bishop in Hong Kong before being appointed to Macau in 2016.


Police ready for security check outside the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Beijing on Christmas Eve. ( photo)


Action, not words  

A researcher in Beijing who asked not to be named, does not expect any significant breakthroughs on China-Vatican relations in 2017. The researcher said that the full focus in China is on the 19th plenary congress of the Communist Party later this year, where the Party's top leadership for the coming five years will be named, including a wildly expected second term for leader Xi Jinping.

Meanwhile, even as talks are progressing Beijing is tightening its grip on the church.

Seminars on so called Sinicization, a process to designed to make the church more Chinese , have been held over the past two months in Beijing and in other provinces including Hebei, Hunan and Jiangsu. Sinicization of religion, was a direction spelled out at a rare CCP National Conference on Religious Works in Beijing last April.

Unlike the past, when the seminars were held in Beijing for clergy and lay leaders in provincial church bodies across China, the latest seminars are aimed at reaching more grassroots Catholics, instead of having similar faces attending every year, according to a church source.

Content from the recent seminars, obtained by, stressed political aspects and national security issues, such as resisting infiltration through internet, religious publication, clergy returned from abroad and in high schools.

On April 17, a seminar was held in Beijing to commemorate late Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan of Beijing, who was also former vice chair of the National People's Congress, China's parliament. In May, there will be two separate commemorative events for the death centenary of Bishop Zong Huaide of Zhoucun and Bishop Dong Guangqing of Hankou. They were all symbolic figures that the Vatican did not recognize at the time when they were ordained bishops during the 1950s and 1970s. Except for Bishop Dong, a Franciscan, the Vatican has never recognized the other two.


Surveillance and detention

It seems apparent that the Chinese government has shown few friendly gestures to the Vatican, instead creating discontent among the people in Shanghai, in Mindong and in China, one senior church figure told

Beginning with a cross-removal campaign since late 2013, the authorities in Zhejiang province have continued a hard-line approach, demanding surveillance cameras be installed in all Protestant and Catholic Churches by the end of March. Zhejiang has a sizable Christian population with an estimated 2 million Protestants and 210,000 Catholics.

Around Holy Week, Bishops Vincent Guo Xijin of Mindong and Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou, both underground prelates not recognized by the government, were taken away from their dioceses on April 7 and 12 respectively to stop them from celebrating one of the most important church feasts.

Conversely, Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai, whose freedom has been restricted since 2012 following his episcopal ordination during which he publicly declared quitting the Patriotic Association, appeared in Mindong to concelebrate Easter Mass with Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, a government-appointed bishop whom the Vatican does not recognize. The blasphemy act aroused discontent among Chinese Catholics.

Given Bishop Ma still has house arrest status, a cross-border concelebration in Fujian province certainly was not something that the religious officials in Shanghai alone could decide. It needed approval and coordination from a high level of government, said a Shanghai church source who asked not to be named.

Bishop Zhan is one of the seven government-backed bishops whom the Vatican does not recognize. Pope Francis reportedly considered pardoning them on the occasion of Year of Mercy in 2016 but it did not happen. As Cardinal Tong noted, more time and patience will be needed for the issue to be finally resolved.

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