In China, Catholics can only legally attend state-sanctioned churches not overseen by the Vatican, with bishops appointed by Beijing rather than the pope. But that could change soon.
The Vatican and Beijing are said to be soon inking a framework agreement on the appointment of bishops in China in the hope of formally ending decades of splits between pro-government Catholics and those of the so-called “underground” communities who only obey the Pope.
The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported earlier this week that a Chinese delegation, led by a deputy foreign minister, would visit Rome after China’s legislative sessions next month to finalize the agreement.
But the deal, some worry, will only mean a normalized relationship on the top which fails to address grassroot followers’ suffering of political indoctrination.
Jonathan Liu, a priest with the San Francisco-based Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness, said the recent experiences of his Catholic peers suggest the agreement will do more harm than good to the autonomy of Catholics in China.
“Some Catholics in northern China have been forced to replace the portrait of Jesus and the cross they hung on the wall of their homes with the portrait of [Chinese president] Xi Jinping,” Liu said.
“If the Pope demands worshipers to unconditionally obey the agreement, there will be a great deal of conflict. Therefore, I don’t think the unjustified agreement will bring unity,” he added.
Liu describes the agreement “a spiritual torture” to Chinese Catholics’ true consciousness and “a betrayal” to those in the underground church movement, who have long rejected ties with China’s patriotic church apparatus.
Beijing cut ties with the Vatican in 1951. Since then, the Communist Party has closed churches and imprisoned priests while Popes have excommunicated communists.
Because of this, underground churches emerged, pledging loyalty to Rome only.
In 2016, Anthony Lam, a leading expert of the Church in China, estimated the country’s Catholic population had declined to 10.5 million.
But ties between the Vatican and Beijing have warmed under Pope Francis, who has adopted a friendlier attitude towards Beijing’s communist government.
Last month, the Vatican asked two underground bishops working in China to make way for replacements approved by Beijing.
Balm of mercy
Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen, who has been an outspoken critic to the ongoing rapprochement between both sides, continues to renounce the Holy See’s latest attempts to apply “the balm of mercy” on what he called the Chinese Communist persecutors.
Zen said, in a lengthy article on his Facebook account on Sunday, with the Vatican wanting unity at all costs, “there is only one possible choice - that of forcing everyone to enter the ‘bird’s cage’.”
That, he said, will yield Chinese authorities a full control of the Catholic Church in China.
The former bishop of Hong Kong further cited reliable sources and revealed that talks between both parties were not made on an equal footing because China refused the Vatican’s intention to discuss the status of Bishop James Su, who Zen said has been in the hands of the Chinese government for more than two decades.
“Accepting their [China’s] refusal is like kneeling down to them from the outset,” Zen wrote.
Supporters of the agreement, however, find doubters’ criticism misleading.
Francesco Sisci, a former Italian diplomat and currently a senior research fellow at China Renmin University, disagreed that the deal is tantamount to rejecting the Holy See’s principles.
The researcher heralded the move to be historic with massive consequences that could bridge what he called gaps between China and the rest of the world. And more importantly, the world's 230 Cardinals, except Zen and all bishops in China, have agreed to the Pope’s decision, he added.
“The proposed agreement will hopefully work toward unity, forgiveness and mercy,” he said, denying the existence of underground Catholic churches in China.
Hans Stockton, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of St. Thomas, called the agreement a cold political calculation in which the Vatican and Beijing both get what they want.
“The Holy See seizes great advantage in having more institutionalized access to China’s faithful and population through its role in the appointment of bishops. So, there’s the notion of the greatest good with the least harm,” the professor said, “so, that is calculation, but at the same time, there are potential advantages to be had in terms of conversion in China.”
China, in return, is awarded with a stamp of approval for its legitimacy in an international system while remaining the controlling partner in its relationship with the Vatican, Stockton added.
China is expected to next pursue formal diplomatic ties with the Vatican, leaving Taiwan with an inevitable and regrettable outcome to lose its oldest ally, the professor said.
Chinese netizens, however, see the Chinese regime a bigger winner of the agreement, as Beijing will reportedly have rights to nominate candidates of bishops for the Vatican to ordain.
“No worries. Any bishops to be recognized by the Vatican will have been brainwashed by our [Communist] party,” a user wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform.
“Jehoveh has kowtowed to [Karl] Marx,” another Weibo user joked.