CHINA’S CATHOLICS, some 10 million to 12 million people, are split between two parallel branches. The official church is approved by the Communist Party and the state. A vibrant underground church, outside the control of the Chinese authorities, has had Rome’s blessing, and the Vatican appointed its bishops. The underground church has suffered repression, along with other religious groups. On Sept. 22, a “provisional agreement” was announced between the Vatican and China’s rulers to begin to bridge the gap. In doing so, the Vatican must be careful not to compromise freedom of expression and worship in pursuit of reconciliation with a regime that respects neither.
The Vatican opened negotiations with Beijing in 2014, seeking to end an estrangement with China that dates to the breaking of diplomatic relations in 1951. A key sticking point has been who will appoint bishops. Both sides laid claim to that authority. Details about the new agreement are sketchy. The Vatican has agreed to accept the legitimacy of seven bishops who had been previously appointed by the Chinese state and excommunicated by the church. Pope Francis told reporters about the appointment of bishops: “The pope will appoint them. Let that be clear.” But it is not certain what will happen to 30 bishops in the underground church who were not previously recognized by the state, nor was the selection process further elaborated in the pope’s message to China’s Catholics. News accounts suggested that the deal involves giving the pope a voice in the appointments process but not control.
The church understandably sees enormous potential for growth in China, where the old ideologies — socialism, atheism — lie in ruins. But in search of a place in China, the Vatican must not sacrifice values and conscience. China’s leaders strive to control ideas and information, and will not tolerate unbridled thought, especially that which could threaten their monopoly on power. They insist that the news media heel, that netcitizens be corralled, that dissidents be imprisoned and scholars refrain from mentioning sensitive topics. They have repressed other religious groups, such as Muslim Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhists and the Falun Gong spiritual movement, although, in general, Christians have not been persecuted as systematically.
Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, who has led opposition to Catholic Church rapprochement with China’s rulers, criticized Vatican leaders for the deal, saying, “They’re giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal.” The cozying up to China could also lead to pressure on the Vatican to jettison Taiwan, with which it maintains full diplomatic relations. China considers Taiwan a renegade province and would insist that the Vatican drop Taiwan as the price for full restoration of relations.
The church has lived with authoritarian regimes in the past, arguing that it is vital to help those in need, no matter what the politics. At the same time, Pope John Paul II helped spark a revolution against Soviet communism. In making a deal with China, the Vatican must not relinquish its independence, nor should it forsake those who have fought in China for their freedom, or give in to a party-state that wantonly suffocates liberty and human dignity.