Over the last several weeks, both religious and secular outlets have been publishing news and commentary on the rumored impending agreement between the Chinese government and the Vatican. Beginning with reports in January that the Vatican had asked two bishops of the underground Church in communion with Rome to step aside and allow illicitly ordained bishops of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) to take over as ordinaries in their dioceses, there has been much discussion and coverage of an imminent deal that would unite the two groups, bring the CPA into communion with the pope, and end a decades-long dispute between the communist state and the Holy See on the selection of Catholic bishops in China.

As with all sensitive and complex matters of international diplomacy and church/state relations, these developments have been controversial and have stirred emotions among Catholics in China and in the West. Sensational headlines about the Vatican abandoning the Chinese faithful and “surrendering” to a communist government have many of the faithful concerned about the future of the Church in China and horrified by the possibility of the Holy See making a grave and inexplicable error that will greatly harm the faithful. Some commentators have suggested that a recent piece by an American archbishop contains a thinly veiled reference comparing the deal to the 1933 Vatican concordat with Nazi Germany.

Other editorials, such as the recent piece by Drew Christiansen, S.J. in America magazine, are in favor of the agreement, and think it will be a positive move for the Church.

It seems that almost every day there is a new wrinkle or development in the story, from Cardinal Zen (emeritus bishop of Hong Kong) waiting in the cold to warn the pope against making a deal, to his comment that Cardinal Parolin was a “man of little faith,” to a Vatican official making the shocking claim that “China is the best implementer of Catholic social doctrine.”

The aim of this post is to add some clarity to the situation, and also to provide some insight into the motivations on both sides of the controversy.    

The most important thing to understand is that this is complicated. There are many moving parts: considering the people involved, the history, the size of the country, and the diversity of experience, it is nearly impossible to make general statements about the state of the Church in China, its freedom to operate, and the relationship between the underground Church and the CPA.

While there is neither time nor space to give a thorough history of Catholicism in China, I highly recommend studying this fascinating (and at times tragic) history. I have provided many links to other sources that will help you understand the many issues at stake.

This is a basic timeline of the major historical events leading up to the impending deal:

1949: Establishment of the People’s Republic of China, all foreign Catholic Missionaries are expelled.

1957: Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) is established

1958: Pope Pius XII excommunicates the bishops of the CPA.

1966-76 China’s cultural revolution, under which Catholics suffer great persecution

1980s: Bishops of the CPA begin seeking on an individual basis, and are granted, Vatican approval. This has continued to the present, and there are currently only 7 Chinese bishops not in communion with Rome.

2005: Four Chinese bishops (representing both the underground and CPA) plan to attend the Synod on the Eucharist in Rome, but the trip is cancelled by the Chinese government.

2007: Benedict XVI’s Letter to Chinese Catholics

2011: A number of illicit episcopal ordinations take place in China, causing a setback in dialogue with the Vatican.

2016: Hong Kong Cardinal Tong writes a letter stating that he “is now willing” to accept a deal with China on episcopal appointments.

1/2018: Reports from China that the Vatican has asked two underground bishops to step aside to allow bishops of the CPA to take their place in their dioceses.

2/2018: Rumors that a Vatican agreement with China on episcopal appointments is imminent

Some general thoughts on the Church in China and the most recent developments:

1) The prevailing, but oversimplified, narrative is that Chinese Catholics are split into two factions: the underground Church, which is in communion with Rome, and the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), which is not in communion with Rome. In reality, the Church doesn’t distinguish between the laity, and in most cases the priests are recognized. The issue is the bishops, of which there are approximately 100 in China, about 70 or so for the underground Church and around 30 for the CPA. According to the excellent and thorough report in America Magazine, all but seven of these bishops are now in communion with Rome. The impending agreement will regularize these seven with Rome, while the current underground bishops recognized by Rome will be recognized by China, and a process for appointing future bishops will be established that will meet the requirements of both Rome and Beijing.

2) In addition to the CPA and underground Church, there is also a sizeable third group that doesn’t get much press coverage: an under-underground Church, if you will, that believes itself in communion with Rome, but refuses to have anything to do with the “official” underground Church because they see it as corrupted by the state.

This group is interesting, they descend from the underground Catholic community that was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, and many of them live and meet in remote villages with lay leadership. They really aren’t involved in these discussions. The agreement will impact them severely, however, because they will be forced to choose whether to accept the institutional Church or continue to operate outside of it. Signs of fissures between the under-underground Church and Rome have already begun to appear. They cling passionately to their Catholic identity, but the longer they remain separate from the institutional Church, the more distinctive their practices and beliefs become. For example, a December Reuters report told about a rogue underground bishop who is operating southwest of Beijing. It said,

“[O]ne Catholic priest has thrown down a challenge to both the Vatican and Chinese authorities. In October, Father Dong Guanhua declared he had been ordained bishop of Zhengding … He said he had become bishop without the mandate of either the Chinese authorities or the Vatican, and he has so far refused to clarify the circumstances of his ordination, even to the Vatican.

Dong, who says he never went to seminary and taught himself the Bible during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when many clergy were imprisoned or defrocked, is a maverick. But he illustrates the risk that some radical elements of the underground Church in China may break away from Rome, according to Vatican and Church officials.”  

And for every “Bishop” Dong, there are hundreds of laypeople with little connection to the institutional Church and no guidance from the clergy practicing (for lack of a better word) an “unsupervised” version of Catholicism that risks developing into something akin to the Hidden Christians in Japan.

3) China does not have full freedom of religion, but tolerates a series of “official” state-recognized religions. Practicing an unrecognized religion is illegal. The CPA was  problematic historically because it recognized the state as the highest authority over Church governance, not the pope. The underground Church, which is in full communion with Rome, has gone unrecognized by Beijing and has been persecuted throughout its history. Especially during the early days of the Maoist government and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), many Chinese Catholics were arrested, imprisoned, and even executed for their faith.

Naturally, Many of today’s underground Catholics, or Catholics like Cardinal Zen, who had to flee the mainland for Hong Kong, the CPA is looked upon with great suspicion and is seen as in league with the Communist government. In my opinion, this is perfectly understandable.

4) The situation has changed greatly since the 1980s. Excommunicated CPA bishops, on their own, have sought and been granted approval from the Vatican. Almost surreally, they basically developed a system where bishops would be consecrated illicitly, find themselves excommunicated, and then go have their excommunications lifted by Rome.

The sticking point is (and has been since the 1980s) the appointment of bishops. The Vatican is insisting on final approval of episcopal appointments, and therefore doesn’t recognize CPA consecrations as licit. In recent years, they have discussed compromises such as Rome nominating 3 choices and letting the Chinese Church pick one, or having the CPA nominate a slate of candidates and giving Rome the final decision. It appears that the current deal being discussed is the latter.

5) They were thought to be close to an agreement in 2011 or so, but China went ahead and ordained more bishops without involving Rome and killed the deal for the time being.

6) On the ground, the situation is very blurry. Many in the pews don’t even know about the division, or aren’t clear what type of Church they worship in. In some places the underground Church operates openly, in others it is persecuted. As stated above, in most places today, the CPA bishops are also in communion with Rome. The recent controversy over the two bishops being asked to step down is related to the seven remaining bishops that don’t have Vatican approval.

7) The negative response to the deal is neither unexpected, nor completely unjustified. Emotionally, this is very upsetting to people who have sacrificed a great deal to remain in communion with Rome. The hard feelings and resentment toward the CPA are understandable, but we have to remember that one of the priorities of the Church is to bring all Christians into communion with one another. The Donatist heresy developed because of the resentment felt against apostate Christians, who left the Church when it was persecuted, but then wanted to return after Christianity was legalized.

8) Rome, however, feels that this is the best way forward given what they have to work with (namely the Chinese government).

Making deals with the Chinese government is risky business. Unlike the Roman Empire at the time of the Donatists, China has experienced no great conversion and doesn’t favor Christianity like Rome did. Chinese President Xi Jinping is no friend to religion, and that includes Catholicism. Churches have been demolished. Restrictions have been passed. There are underground bishops under house arrest.

Still, opposition to a Vatican/China deal is about 30 years overdue. To anyone who has followed these affairs closely, an agreement is a natural – if not inevitable – outcome of the developments in the relationship between the two parties. It would be impossible (or at least disastrous) to undo the rapprochement that has already taken place. Regularizing seven bishops and a agreeing on a formal arrangement for the selection of future bishops doesn’t seem like a revolutionary step compared to the steps that have preceded it.

I don’t think anyone seriously following the negotiations won’t acknowledge that an agreement with with the Chinese government is a great risk. And I don’t think the Vatican diplomats are going into this blindly. They know there are risks and rewards involved here. It simply appears to them (and to me as well), based on all the complex factors, that a deal to unify the Chinese Church will benefit Chinese Catholics more than not.


Image: Our Lady of Deliverance in Peking. Source: Wikimedia Commons


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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