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Chinese Catholics remain split over Vatican deal

Increased pressure on underground members to join state-sanctioned official church

ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong

ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong

Updated: April 29, 2019 04:17 AM GMT
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Chinese Catholics remain split over Vatican deal

Chinese Catholic clergy prepare to attend a Mass in Beijing last Christmas Eve. (Photo by Wang Zhao/AFP)

There are splits in Chinese Catholic families despite Vatican hopes that an agreement with the country's communist regime would help reconcile members of the officially recognized and underground church communities.

The text of the provisional agreement reached in September has not been made public, but it provides for Chinese-government backed church officials to nominate new bishops while purportedly giving the Vatican a right of veto.

Underground Catholic Mary Wang lives in a village in Jiangsu province in eastern China where there are also Catholics who are aligned with the Beijing government-sanctioned church community.

That includes married couples such as herself where husband and wife are not members of the same Catholic grouping.

While such situations have long created tensions in families, Mary and her spouse previously maintained domestic harmony through tolerance and understanding.

"My husband and I used to pray together every night before," Mary said.

He would then go to Mass conducted by the officially sanctioned church and she would go to a service at an underground venue.

However, after the provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops was signed, things for them changed for the worse.

Mary's husband now argues that she should become a member of the official church as Pope Francis has accepted previously ostracized bishops ordained in the past under the mandate of communist officials.

That challenging of her underground church allegiance hurt Mary’s feelings.

While she respects the right of others to affiliate themselves with the government-backed Catholic community, Mary refuses to do so.

"Even if we lose our underground venue later on, I will never compromise and I will maintain my faith," she said.

Mary, though, added that she accepts her responsibility to be a good and responsible wife.

Catholics attend a Mass at the government-sanctioned St. Ignatius Catholic Cathedral in Shanghai on Sept. 30, 2018. (Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP)


Senior Vatican officials have said that Pope Francis sees the provisional agreement with Beijing as a fraternal gesture.

In a letter to the Chinese faithful on Sept. 26, Pope Francis said it was motivated by specific spiritual and pastoral aims to "re-establish and preserve the full and visible unity of the Catholic community in China."

But for some Catholics families, the reality on the ground has been otherwise, not least because of external pressures.

Mary revealed that some state-condoned priests in her area have been pressing underground church adherents to leave what they argue is an illegal organization.

Left from Catholicism

Many northern Catholic families face similar internal tensions to Mary’s.

Paul Lan was a devoted Catholic in Hebei province in China's north. However, he jettisoned Catholicism and became a Protestant Christian because he harbored doubts about the China-Vatican deal on appointing bishops.

He objects to the agreement not being made public and feels that, on the basis of what is known, it will not be of future benefit to Catholicism in China.

But Lan's wife disagreed with his decision to stop going to Catholic services.

“The agreement is a business between two countries," she told ucanews.com. "We, as lay people, just have to listen to the pope, and not get involved."

Lan responded: “Faithful to the Lord, but not the pope.”

Rather than bring better pastoral care, the Vatican deal would result in "more persecution" by the Chinese Communist Party, he added.

Lan conceded that he does not really want to convert to the Protestantism, but added that he would feel ashamed to be part of the official church. 

The couple are paying a high price for their religious divergence through negative impacts on their marriage and children.

The interior of a house church in Puyang in China's central Henan province as seen on Aug. 13, 2018. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)


Tension between generations

More broadly, there are inter-generational tensions in traditional Catholic families.

Members of Teresa's family in Yunnan in southwestern China have been Catholic for generations with many elder members being persecuted after the communists took control of China in 1949.

Teresa, an underground Catholic, told ucanews.com that she is now confused over how to deal with changing circumstances, including over where to attend Masses.

"My grandfather and his sons were imprisoned because of their faith,” she said when explaining the refusal of family members to accept the official church.

Teresa complained that although Pope Francis had now pardoned bishops the Vatican formerly regarded as illicit, the official church remained under heavy-handed government control.

She noted having aunts who left the underground church to join the official church in the wake of last year's Vatican-Beijing deal who have since had conflicts with other relatives.

The aunts argue that it is now underground church supporters who were splitting the family and have called on all Catholics in China to stop criticizing each other in order to concentrate on evangelizing.

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