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China and the Vatican


The past couple of weeks has seen a flurry of stories about a possible rapprochement between the Vatican and China. After decades of a rift, things seem to be moving swiftly towards some type of agreement. But what is driving this, and why now?

John L. Allen, editor of Crux , explains why the Vatican seems so eager for a deal with China:

The Vatican has its own long history of trying to accommodate Beijing, in an effort to clear the way for establishing diplomatic relations and creating a more stable legal framework for the life of the Church in China.

The debate has always been over how far Rome ought to go in trying to achieve that aim, and at what point compromise becomes appeasement. It has special resonance because we’re talking, in part, about the legacy of martyrs in China who’ve paid the ultimate price for their fidelity to the pope.

Allen then goes on to identify four factors driving the Vatican’s eagerness to reach an agreement with Beijing:

First, there’s the root fact that there are Catholics in China—somewhere between 10 and 15 million, according to most estimates, though no one knows for sure due to the difficulties of doing reliable religious surveys. Although those Catholics generally don’t suffer outright physical persecution, they do experience chronic harassment and restrictions on religious life, and a sort of enduring second-class citizenship. Clearly, the Vatican would like to do whatever it can to improve their situation.

Second, there’s also a diplomatic drive as well as a pastoral one. The Vatican has its own diplomatic corps, aspiring to be a voice of conscience on the global stage—never more so than in the Pope Francis era, when, from immigration and climate change to nuclear disarmament and the dangers of “ideological colonization,” the Vatican is active on a wide range of fronts.

To state the obvious, China is already among a handful of truly titanic players on the global stage, and that’s only going to become ever more so as its political, economic and military capabilities expand. As a result, the Vatican understands that if you’re not talking directly to Beijing, you’re basically out of the loop.

Third, there’s a deep romance about China nurtured over centuries in the Catholic psyche, associated with legendary figures such as Matteo Ricci and St. Francis Xavier. There’s also a nagging historical sense that the Church sort of blew it with the Chinese Rites controversy in the 17th and 18th centuries, when internal rivalries among Jesuits and Dominicans impeded efforts to give a Christian significance to certain traditional Chinese religious rites and imperial practices, and thus got in the way of developing a Church that’s “truly Catholic and truly Chinese.”

Ever since, there’s been a longing for another bite at the apple, and the Vatican believes that a formal deal with Beijing would help make that possible. (That’s a personal point for Francis, who once dreamed of being a Jesuit missionary in China himself.)

Fourth, the Vatican also understands that China is rich with missionary potential, though it sometimes seems to struggle to know what to do about it. Many experts regard China as the world’s last truly competitive spiritual marketplace. No matter what happens, Christianity in some form almost certainly will remain the majority faith in Europe and North America, Hinduism will be the majority in India, Islam the majority in the Middle East, and Africa will be divided between Islam and Christianity with significant pockets of indigenous religious practice.

In China, however, things seem more up for grabs. Confucianism is an ethical code more than a religion, and seventy years of official atheism have more or less fallen by the wayside in favor of palpable spiritual hunger.

Yet while Catholicism has done little more than keep pace with overall population growth in China over the last seventy years, Protestant Christianity, especially Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism, has exploded. From less than one million followers at the time of the last census that included religion in 1949, Protestantism today is believed to number somewhere between 60 and 100 million followers, putting China on a path to be the “most Christian nation in the world,” at least in terms of raw numbers, somewhere in the middle of the 21st century.

The Vatican appears to believe the prudent course is to carve out a stable legal framework before encouraging dramatic expansion in missionary efforts—but it also has to understand that, to some extent, the clock is ticking before it’s too late.

America Magazine, a Jesuit publication has an excellent (and long) piece with many more details of the recent negotiations, as well as analysis of the potential implications of an agreement being signed between the Vatican and the Chinese government. It also highlights issues that the current proposed agreement will not address:

It should be noted, however, that the accord will not abolish the state structures that control the church in China today or the democratic election of candidates to be bishops; they all remain in place. Moreover, myriad important questions will still need to be resolved. These include: the situation of almost 30 underground bishops and their communities, the release of the two bishops that disappeared several years ago, the recognition of the bishops’ conference and agreement on the number of dioceses, the situation of Bishop Ma in Shanghai, the possibility for Chinese bishops to visit the Vatican and for the Holy See’s officials to visit Catholic communities in China, and for the Holy See to open an office in Beijing for relations with the government and the church in the mainland.

It is important to mention, too, that the question of diplomatic relations and the question of Taiwan have not been addressed so far in the negotiations between China and the Holy See.

The loudest voice in opposition to the emerging deal has been that of Cardinal Zen, Archbishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, who has long advocated a “hard line” approach to dealing with China. In an article published by the Catholic News Agency, he is quoted as saying:

“In recent days, the brothers and sisters living on the Chinese mainland have learned that the Vatican is ready to surrender to the Chinese communist party, and therefore they feel uneasy,” Cardinal Zen wrote in a Feb. 5 Chinese-language blog post translated and posted to Settimo Cielo, the site of Vatican reporter Sandro Magister at the Italian newspaper L’Espresso.

“Seeing that the illegitimate and excommunicated bishops will be legitimized, and the legitimate ones will be forced to retire, it is logical that the legitimate and clandestine bishops should be concerned about their fate,” continued the cardinal, the archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong.

Between these developments and the implementation of new religious regulations in China, it seems that 2018 is shaping up to be a very interesting year.

For Further Study

In 2014 we devoted an issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly to looking at the state of Catholicism in China today. You can read that here.

The United States Catholic China Association is another good source of information about Catholicism in China.

Image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio