Despite religious repression, Sino-Vatican deal is significant

Provisional agreement doesn’t mean China’s Catholics are any freer, but it might have avoided greater evils

Father Gianni Criveller, Hong Kong 
March 21, 2019

A worshipper prays before Mass at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Cathedral in Anyang in China’s central Henan province on Aug.12, 2018. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)

Six months ago, the Vatican and Beijing reached a provisional agreement over the appointment of bishops in China.

It was signed on Sept. 22 during a very negative year for religious freedom in China, and in particular for the Catholic faithful. The agreement’s details remain undisclosed.

Following the signing, the state-aligned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) and the official Bishops Conference hailed the agreement. They said it mirrors “the love for the homeland and the Church” of Chinese Catholics; which maintains “the principles of autonomy and independence in the administration of the church”.

Both of these bodies said they want to follow ‘Sinicization’ — the reshaping of universal religions according to Chinese characteristics — and their path of adaptation to socialist society, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The program of Sinicization, imposed by leader Xi Jinping, is being carried out without saving men or resources.

Since the signing, China’s political authorities have said little about the agreement which was signed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, a body institutionally devoted to seeking diplomatic successes for the sake of the country’s international prestige.

But the complex administrative and repressive machinery involved in Chinese religious policy has a different agenda and might need more time to adapt to the agreement.

The CCPA derives an economic return from its control of the church and it now might fear a retrenchment of its role. The State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) officials, now under the United Front Department of the Communist Party, may have a similar fear of losing control. Such fears may be one reason for an increase in religious repression in China during the months after the signing of the agreement.

We cannot likewise rule out that the agreement might be a clever deception on the part of the Chinese regime: obtaining a prestigious international result while increasing internal repression. Another political hidden-agenda, from the Chinese side, could be the further isolation of Taiwan.

Repression ramped up in 2018, especially from February when new regulations aggravated restrictions imposed by religious policy. All religious and civil liberties have been subjected to a tremendous crackdown across the country.

Crosses were torn down or burned; churches were demolished or stripped; Catholic children were prevented from attending Mass or taken out of the church. It is also forbidden to organize study-camps for young people. Churches have been forced to raise the national flag and accept supervisory committees.

There is also a great effort to eliminate any critical Catholic presence from the internet. Numerous direct testimonies, photos and amateur videos, confirm these abuses. These oppressive measures, fortunately, are not applied everywhere with the same rigor. 

The sad case of Thaddeus Ma Daqing, the bishop of Shanghai, who has been under house arrest for more than six years, has not been resolved.

Of course, the current wave of tremendous difficulties is not a consequence of the agreement. What is occurring is due to decisions made by the incumbent leadership. Maybe, in some ways, the agreement mitigates what is occurring. It’s hard to say.

But it is now very clear that the agreement does not mean that Catholics are any freer in China, and since the signing, Holy See officials who for years worked to bring about the agreement have shown caution rather than jubilation.

The situation of the underground communities, of the bishops and priests in a state of detention or limitation of freedom remain dramatically unresolved. It would be very sad if underground communities are forcibly eliminated by an authoritarian regime, using authoritarian means. It seems that Chinese Catholics will have, for some time, even more difficulties. It will get worse before getting any better. But we know the moral strength and faith of the Catholics of China, who have passed so many trials. They are indeed in a trying moment of their history.

As mentioned above, the present agreement might lessen the Chinese Church’s misfortune. It is also very much possible that the Holy See wanted to avoid the real possibility that the regime would continue or even escalate its despicable practice of ordaining illegitimate bishops and tarnishing the correct ordination of legitimate ones.

Without an agreement, the number of illegitimate bishops could have risen considerably. The Vatican avoided the risk of having dozens of bishops, completely unrelated to ecclesial communion with the universal Church and subject only to the government.

The best result of the agreement is to have, for the first time in 60 years, all the 100 bishops of China in communion with the Holy See. This is significant, and its historical importance cannot be underrated. Moreover, for the first time, this regime has recognized the Catholic Church as a dignified interlocutor and recognized the right of the pope to appoint bishops in China. This is no small accomplishment.

The mechanism for choosing the candidate is not publicly known. I believe it cannot be much different from the method adopted in China in the last decades. Government officials have certainly a great deal of control in the mechanism of proposing episcopal candidates. It’s hoped that under the agreement only candidates of moral and pastoral quality are chosen to be submitted to the Holy See.

Admitting that political authorities are involved in selecting candidates to be presented to the pope, the Holy See has made a gesture of openhandedness towards China.

In the past temporal powers have heavily interfered or even obtained for themselves the right to appoint bishops, but it was a negative situation to which the Second Vatican Council and the Code of Canon Law sought to turn around.

Rather than invoking historical precedents, it’s preferable justifying the involvement of civil authorities in the selection of candidates by reaffirming the extraordinary nature of the China case. In these specific historical circumstances, the pope has allowed an exceptional concession to avoid greater evils and for the supreme good of the people of God.

The agreement is one of the most significant results of Pope Francis’ pontificate. His international prestige might have been decisive in obtaining a historical result that has eluded previous popes.

Pope Francis has explicitly claimed his personal responsibility for the agreement. He is aware that Catholicism and China have had a long and difficult history, full of contrasts, failures, and missed opportunities. He wanted to discontinue the impasse and try something new. He hopes for a better future in spite of the bleak present.

Pope Francis has chosen the course of action without waiting for better times, times that may never arrive. I believe it was Pope Francis who pushed the Holy See to reach out to China, the missionary land of Matteo Ricci and many other great Jesuit missionaries.

In the past six months, a lot has been written about the agreement and what it means. But it remains a work in progress. It has raised enthusiasm, perhaps excessive; and criticism perhaps is too severe. The Catholic Church knows no other way than to follow the pope, and to support his efforts in guiding the people of God. This must be a moment of unity.

Father Gianni Criveller is a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) who has served in Greater China since 1991. Currently he is dean of studies and professor at the PIME International School of Theology in Monza, Milan.

< back                 top ^