China-Vatican deal on bishop appointments may create closer ties

Communist Party control of worship to continue under Catholic Patriotic Association

A woman walks past the Holy Family Catholic Church in Taipei. There are 12-30 million Catholics in China. Photograph: Daniel Shih

A woman walks past the Holy Family Catholic Church in Taipei. There are 12-30 million Catholics in China. Photograph: Daniel Shih


It’s nearly 70 years since the Communists swept to power in China and the Roman Catholic Church was driven out by the fiercely secular order of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary society, but a landmark deal between Beijing and the Holy See on who gets to name bishops, which has strained relations for decades, has opened a new channel for closer ties.

The Vatican and its representatives were expelled from China in 1949 and in 1951 the Holy See established diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the self-ruled island where the losing nationalist side fled after the civil war. Since he took office in 2013, Pope Francis has been focused on improving ties with China.

“This agreement is immense. It is the first time the two most ancient institutions of the world, the church and the ‘Chinese empire’ meet on an equal footing. In centuries to come many things will be forgotten, but not this,” Francesco Sisci, a Beijing Renmin university professor researching international and China-Vatican issues, told The Irish Times.

“There is a lot of work to do. Many new bishops to appoint, many new priests to train,” said Sisci.

Religion is an especially political issue in China. President Xi Jinping has been pushing a campaign to “Sinicise” all religions and the state-supervised Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) has come under the direct rule of the Communist Party, after the party’s powerful United Front Work Department took over the reins.

There are roughly 12 million Catholics in China – although some claim the number could be as high as 30 million. The Catholics are divided between an underground church loyal to the Vatican and the CCPA.

‘Underground’ bishops

The appointment of bishops has been a dealbreaker for years, because every bishop recognised by Beijing must be a member of the CCPA.

However, there are seven bishops named by the CCPA not accepted by the Holy See, and 20 bishop candidates who have been appointed by the Vatican, and in some cases already secretly ordained.

Add to this another 40 “underground” bishops whose legitimacy is acknowledged only by the Vatican and who are in constant danger of arrest. About 60 bishops are recognised by both the Holy See and the CCPA.

The deal will have an impact on Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province, because the Holy See is likely to switch diplomatic recognition, although church officials say the faithful on the self-ruled island are resigned to this happening.

The deal is low on details, but the pope has agreed to recognise the seven Beijing-appointed bishops.

At the same time, China is bulldozing churches considered illegal and churches must display the national flag while removing religious imagery from public spaces.

This broad religious crackdown means not everyone is a fan. Hong Kong’s retired cardinal, Joseph Zen, has been a vocal critic of rapprochement with China and this week he called for the Vatican’s secretary of state, Pietro Parolin, to resign, saying a deal with Beijing would be tantamount to betrayal.

‘Incredible betrayal’

“They’re giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal,” he said.

Zen’s anger comes from decades of watching how the Catholic and other churches were treated by the Communist Party. Its hostility towards Catholic missionaries was intense and priests and nuns were viewed as imperialist stooges. Bishops were regularly jailed for decades, priests forced to hide and nuns attacked.

In 1957, the CCPA was established in a bid to both respond to international criticism of the treatment of clerics but also to make sure that religious activity took place under the watchful eye of the government.

On Zen’s strong reservations about a deal, Sisci said they were legitimate but had no traction.

The state-run Global Times newspaper, which reflects official opinion, said closer relations between the Vatican and Beijing were “good for Catholics”.

“In China, every citizen enjoys the freedom to choose whether to believe in a religion, to believe in a certain religion or in a denomination of the same religion. But meanwhile all religious activities must be carried out in accordance with the law and cannot pose threats to social order and stability. No illegal religious activities can be exempted from punishment nor will any legal activities be suppressed.”