Perspectives on the direction of China-Vatican relations

Recent negotiations appear more about promoting mutual understanding so as to pave the way for further discussion
Perspectives on the direction of China-Vatican relations

Chinese Catholics leave after Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, Feb. 20, 2013. Experts estimate that there are as many as 12 million Catholics in China, with about half in congregations under the officially-administered Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. The rest belong to non-sanctioned or so-called underground churches. (Photo by AFP)

The media have closely followed recent negotiations between the Holy See and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and it seems both sides are coming closer to reaching an agreement on at least one important issue — the appointment of bishops.

While details of any agreement have yet been released, many are convinced that the Holy See and the Beijing government have reached some agreement and that the building of diplomatic ties is imminent.

There are three aspects that could help indicate if this is occurring.


Church-state relations, domestic politics and religious policy in China

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The CCP's control over every aspect of Chinese society has not loosened in time. Instead, if we go by trends the opposite has occurred.

So if Holy See and Beijing negotiations need a hassle-free atmosphere, then that is what we do not have. At present there are members of the underground church community who are detained in prison and there is the government-led cross demolition campaign in Zhejiang province. On top of those two examples, there remains many domestic policies that enforce state control over religion.

The church in China is internally very complicated. The most outstanding issue is on bishop's appointment. It now appears that among the eight illicit bishops whom the Vatican does not approve of, two of them are controversial as they are reportedly have girlfriends and children. The best option is for these two is to step down. If they are unwilling to concede, it will be difficult for the Holy See and Beijing to find a solution to the issue of bishop's appointment.

Either way it will not be easy for both sides to reach an agreement. Beijing first has to be willing to give up certain powers while the Holy See also has to maintain certain important principles.

The Chinese government could accept something akin to the "Vietnam model" for the ordination of bishops, which is based on a Vatican short-listing of candidates submitted to the government for approval. If Hanoi approves, the Holy See officially appoints the bishop; if Vietnam refuses, the Vatican is forced to submit another name, and so on until a bilateral consensus is reached

But this will depend entirely on the CCP's willingness to change the current way of how bishops are nominated in mainland China. Another issue derived from bishops' appointment is the dispute related to the underground community. If the Holy See recognizes the illicit bishops, will Beijing allow bishops and members of the underground community to hold their activities freely and openly in reciprocity?

If both issues are resolved, then the government-sanctioned open community and the underground community will be in communion. This would certainly be a remarkable thing for the universal church. If that is the case, the bishops' conference currently headed by illicit Bishop Ma Yinglin could then be recognized by the Holy See. The issue on the division of dioceses could be resolved as well.

However, would Beijing guarantee that the underground Catholics would no longer be persecuted? It is hard not to question this from the trend of China's religious policy in recent years. This is exactly the concern of Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun who has appealed to the Holy See not to forget the underground community's allegiance to the pope and its sufferings through the decades.

The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) is regarded as a pawn of the government to control the China church. Its existence and abolition or an adjustment of its role is a crucial issue. If the role and mandate of the CCPA are revised, will it affect similar patriotic associations in other religions? For the Chinese government, it also will have to revise its overall religious policy. The impact of this would be wide and great.


China's consideration on its Taiwan policy

Many have been speculating on the outcome of Taiwan's 2016 presidential election. Some believed that if Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, which advocates Taiwan's independence, was elected, the CCP would seek to reduce Taiwan's diplomatic allies. In this bid to "penalize" the Tsai government, the first episode would be the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican.

President Tsai has only been in power for three months and she has not yet fully revealed her foreign and diplomatic policies. Beijing has no excuse yet to penalize her government and I believe the CCP are still observing the development of Taiwan's political situation. If building diplomatic ties between China and the Vatican is a bargaining chip for Beijing, it will choose an appropriate time to play this card. But such a time has yet to come.


The Holy See's position towards China

The Chinese government has had a tight grip on the development of the China church since 1949. The position of the Holy See is obvious, to negotiate with Beijing to resolve the situation in ways that are mutually acceptable. The Holy See wants to correct and improve certain practices and phenomenon in the China church that do not conform to ecclesial principles. They also want to manage the China church so it could rejoin the universal church.

Despite the current talk of progress on bilateral negotiations, I believe both sides are still far from reaching wide-ranging consensus. Key issues are the bishops' appointments, the CCPA, the underground community, the seminary formation system and the positioning of the China church's relations with the Holy See and the universal church.

All these issues depend very much on the willingness of Beijing to give up much of its power over the lives of China's Catholics.

Beijing's greatest concern is that it can't completely control the China church once it allows the Holy See to be involved in the church's management in China.

I believe the current round of negotiations between China and the Holy See are as Cardinal John Tong Hon of Hong Kong said: "Early results prior to the establishment of diplomatic relation."

However, it is not completely impossible for both sides to reach an agreement on bishops' appointment and to normalize their relations.

The Holy See has not said that the negotiation for this round is aimed at establishing diplomatic relations with China. The outcome is rather to promote mutual understanding and exchange so as to pave the way for future contacts.

Going forward, out one may predict church-state conflicts will inevitably be intensified as both sides will not reach consensus on many other issues.

In any case, there is no doubt about the historic significance of these "early results."


Alex Chen Tsung-ming is a native of Taiwan. He was conferred with a PhD in History from the Universite Lumiere Lyon 2, France, and is now the research director at the Ferdinand Verbiest Institute, K.U.Leuven, Belgium. He published a Chinese book The History of the Diplomatic Relations between the Holy See and the China: the Two Sides of the Taiwan Strait and the Holy See [1912-1978] in January 2016.

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