China-Vatican Relations: Cooperation between Religion and Power?

It must have been a really tough time for most Chinese Catholics in the past few weeks. On January 22 2018, the Holy See announced that it will recognize bishops nominated by Chinese authority rather than ‘underground’ bishops who risk their lives maintaining their spiritual loyalty to Vatican. As the result, two underground bishops were now told to stand aside for official bishops, and to convince their followers to follow new religious leadership supported by the state. It is undoubtedly hard and unacceptable for many Catholics, who have challenged the Chinese government’s strict religious regulation and restriction for decades, and still experience harsh treatment, to realize the Pope chooses to stand with their oppressors. Years ago, China’s Catholic were positive about Vatican-China relations as much has been done for healing Catholic rift under Pope Francis. Although some people were worried about that too much compromise would be made to Chinese government, few people foresaw this move.

Image courtesy of US Department of State, © 2016, some rights reserved.

Religion is not a heated topic for the explicitly atheist Chinese state. Atheism is part of the Communist Party’s ideology, and remains relevant within the Party. Members of the Party are not allowed to join any kind of religious organization, and the oath that members take when they join the Party affirms their life-long belief in communism. However, China is a country has rich religious traditions, not only in terms of Taoism and Buddhism, but also including Christianity, Catholicism and Islam. All of them constitute of the spiritual life of many Chinese today. Unlike under Stalin’s regime and especially after Mao, the Chinese government has allowed religious practices within certain boundaries. Strict religious regulations exist – since 1949, the Chinese government apples religious autonomous self-management principles to all religious practice in China. The principle prohibits any relations with foreign religious organizations, and bans missionary work. Plus, atheism is at the core of education, which has been worked effectively up to date.

Surprisingly, under severe circumstances as such, the number of Christians in China is reported to outnumber the number of Party members. Especially in the rural areas, religion is a useful tool for mobilization and solidifying communities for local leaders, and the successful localization of religion has turned western religion from an external faith to a local one. Outside the border, a large number of Chinese students have been converted to certain religions and bring them back home. Chinese communities overseas also attempt to employ religion as a boundary between themselves and the home community in China. From example, people from Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, the home community of the majority of Chinese immigrant communities in continental Europe, have helped spread Catholicism in many rural areas in the eastern coastal provinces and have encouraged the establishment of parishes. According to incomplete data to 2017, there are between nine and twelve million Catholics in China. However, at least one third of them worship in underground churches.

‘Underground’ churches mainly refer to Catholic Churches that are recognized by Vatican and whose bishops are appointed by Vatican. Their underground status stems from their official prohibition, as the Chinese government considers contact between Roman Catholic Church and Chinese Catholics as an interference of a foreign state. As a result, churches that dedicate their loyalty to Vatican are viewed as trators, and therefore are banned. In June 2017, The bishop of Wenzhou underground parish, Shen Zhumin, was once forcefully taken away and arrested by the government. Shen was one of two bishops who are directly appointed by Vatican. Later in the same year, Chinese authorities secretly restricted Chinese tourist groups traveling to Vatican, as the traveling was believed to be used as pilgrimage for Chinese Catholics. The legal and officially recognized Catholic organization in China is the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association established in 1957, which emphasizes self-nomination of bishops. The tension between patriotic church and ‘underground’ church was high at the beginning, but it becomes much less so especially after Benedict XVI’s letter to the church in China in 2017, in which the pope allows Catholic to participate in ‘patriotic’ church. However, the expansionary decision made by Roman Catholic is still a fairly game-changing one. It seems to be a Mindszenty event occuring again, when loyalist bishops are forced into exile, replaced by government-nominated clergy.

China-Vatican relation is surely not only about the two states. Taiwan, the state which celebrated 75 years of diplomatic relations with Vatican last October, finds the change worrying. Formal relations would shrink the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to fewer than twenty. Since 2016, there are three states, which formerly recognized Taiwan as a state, establishing diplomatic relations with the PRC. Still worryingly, the normalization of Vatican-China relations means the loss of the only European state that maintains formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.  It is predicted that Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with the Holy See will be taken over by cultural institutions affiliated to the Catholic Church, among which the Sovereign Order of Malta is a potential candidate. As for the United States, it declares that the government will not speak against the establishment of the relations between Vatican and China and the Vatican’s endorsement of the appointment of bishops , but will nevertheless closely track and evaluate events.

The negotiation between the Holy See and the PRC on the appointment of bishops has begun, as the latest update of the issue. According to Vatican, China can send delegations to Rome after March to sign treaties. The process of the negotiation is not transparent and highly controversial, which may lead to dissatisfaction within the churches and from the international society, the Holy See prior having treaties signed because of Beijing’s changeable attitudes.

‘Signing a bad treaty is better than signing nothing’, commented by the Holy See. Is a bad treaty truly better than nothing? At least for Guo Xijin, one of the bishops required to step down, the answer is no.



Link for a useful short documentary about China’s Catholic community: