Catholics remain split as China, Vatican reportedly finalize landmark agreement

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/25 18:58:39

The ongoing negotiations between China and the Vatican, if successful, will be a historic milestone in the relationship between the two parties and bring about mutual benefits. But concerns have also arise as to how many concessions each party will have to make, and what meaning they will have for Chinese Catholics.

A few boys pray in a Catholic church in Shanxi Province. Photo: Li Hao/GT

A few boys pray in a Catholic church in Shanxi Province. Photo: Li Hao/GT

As recent reports show that negotiations between China and the Vatican on diplomatic and religious relations are entering their final stage, experts and Catholic leaders are now pondering the significance of these talks for both the Catholic world and for China.

But obstacles to a full Roman Catholic presence in China remain significant, and experts and clergymen believe that even if an agreement is made, it will only be the first step in a long path toward China and the Holy See finding a mutually satisfactory situation.

Mutual benefits

"I learned indeed that there may soon be an agreement between China and the Vatican," Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian priest who is close to the church in China and Rome, said in an e-mail response to the Global Times.

The main issue of any deal will be an agreement on how bishops in China will be appointed, according to Father Heyndrickx. "We expect and hope that this agreement will honor the Church tradition that the pope appoints the bishops and also respects the principle of the gospel 'give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,' meaning that the government of China will have an important say in the final decisions," the missionary said.

Currently, the Catholic Church in China is divided into two communities. The State-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), which leads the open church of around 5.5 million members, appoints its own bishops without the approval of the pope, only the government. The "underground" community, which some experts think has more members than the CCPA, swears allegiance solely to the pope but is considered illegal by the Chinese government.

Of the roughly 110 bishops in China, most have been sanctioned by both the Chinese government and the Vatican. But there are eight bishops who don't have papal approval, and another 30 bishops who are part of the underground church and have received papal, but not government support.

"We believe that the agreement will imply that some (or all) of these 'illegal' bishops will become legal and be given a fitting appointment. Perhaps also some other (newly appointed) bishops will be ordained soon with the agreement of both sides," Father Heyndrickx said.

According to exclusive sources interviewed by Reuters, the Vatican has already reached a decision to recognize at least four Chinese bishops who were appointed by Beijing without the consent of the pope and so are currently considered illegitimate by the Holy See. This has not been officially confirmed by either the Vatican or the Chinese government.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said last Friday in a regular press conference that "the channel for contact and dialogue between the two sides is open and effective," but did not disclose further details.

Both sides have shown earnest efforts in reaching a real deal, the most recent case being the pope openly meeting with Suzhou Bishop Xu Honggen who visited the Vatican this month with a mainland pilgrimage group.

The agreement, if made, will be the biggest breakthrough in the relationship between China and the Vatican for more than 60 years. For China, it's important because it "could help Chinese ease some difficult ties in the world, because of the Vatican's role in the world, heading the largest unitary religion on Earth," according to Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at the Center of European Studies at the Renmin University of China and a Vatican affairs expert.

"It would also help the Vatican to fulfill its mission - help peace in the world and freedom of faith," Sisci said.

Radical ordinations

Although an agreement seems to be imminent, experts say forces trying to sabotage the agreement have been so strong that nothing can be considered certain until the deal is signed. "The deal is very technical, full of traps and there are many people, on all sides, directly or indirectly involved, who wish for the deal to fail or better even create an explosion … Both sides have to deal with many forces inside China or inside the Catholic world, who oppose for various reasons this agreement," Sisci said.

In the Catholic world, vocal critics of the talks include retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, who believes that the Vatican is ignoring the underground church in the negotiations in order to appease the Chinese government, and fears the agreement will actually end up costing the Catholic Church its religious freedom. "On the day that an agreement is signed with China there will be peace and joy, but do not expect me to participate in the celebrations of the beginning of this new Church," he wrote in an article earlier this year, which was published on, a Catholic news website.

At the end of the day, the significance of the agreement for the underground church will depend on what kind of deal is reached, according to Yang Fenggang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in Indiana.

"If the Vatican side is perceived to have made too many concessions and compromises, a large proportion of underground Catholics may refuse to accept or comply with the deal. Thus the underground church problem may not go away any time soon," he said.

"However, if the compromises are perceived by underground Catholics as reasonable, it may help to bring all underground Catholics into the open, although it may take some time to heal and restore the relations between some underground and aboveground Catholic bishops and priests." Yang said.

And even if the agreement is made, it will only be the first agreement on a long path to the diplomatic relations between the two sides, and many thorny questions will remain to be resolved through future talks, according to Agostino  Giovagnoli, a professor of contemporary history at the Catholic University of Milan who closely follows the Vatican's relationship with China.

Persistent problem

In the mainland, some hardliners from the underground church are resisting the negotiations using more radical approaches that defy not only the Communist Party's rules for religion, but also the Pope. At least two priests have been ordained with neither papal or government recognition, reported, in an effort to counter what they think as the Vatican's concessions to the Chinese government.

Father Paul Dong Guanhua from Zhengding in northern Hebei Province announced last month that he was secretly ordained as a bishop, under special faculties that the Holy See granted to the Chinese Church following the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), which gives bishops the power to ordain successors in times of persecution, according to, a Catholic news agency.

Although many of his online posts have been deleted, some can still be found online in which he calls for priests who wanted to be ordained to contact him. "If we want to stick to our loyal faith, we will need to be organized, and that requires the special faculty," he wrote in one online post. When approached by, he admitted that he had already ordained one bishop, but declined to disclose this person's identity.

However, the special faculty Father Dong relies on was officially withdrawn by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. And although Dong has several hundred followers, his actions are considered radical and condemnable even in the underground church. Following his announcement, he was removed from position by Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo of Zhengding, who is recognized by the Vatican but not the Chinese government.

Pope Benedict XVI's letter in 2007, however, also determined the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association is inconsistent with the Church's teaching.

"The news about these two ordinations are in themselves tentative of a boycott of the [China-Vatican] dialogue … the Holy See will never recognize these two (or more) bishops," Giovagnoli said.

And at this critical moment, experts who champion the negotiations say it's important to deal with these challenges wisely. "It is important for China and the Vatican, I believe, not to get bogged down in these and other issues that can pop up from all over. It is important to deal with them with calm and without over-reacting: over reaction can make these problems bigger," Sisci said.

"If the top leaders on both sides, Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping, are determined, they will be able to overcome their own internal obstacles respectively," Yang said.

Newspaper headline: Between God and Caesar

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