Catholics line up to receive consecrated wafers from a priest at a Catholic church near the city of Taiyuan, Shanxi province, March 2013.
Catholics line up to receive consecrated wafers from a priest at a Catholic church near the city of Taiyuan, Shanxi province, March 2013.

Compared in terms of state territory, economic power, or nuclear might, no two places differ more than China and Vatican City, the world’s largest and smallest countries. But measured as two empires with indelible historical presence, communal identity, and cultural wealth, China and the Holy See share a lot—including a sense of time in which decades are a standard planning unit rather than weeks or months. That is why Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis’ apparent resolution of a 70-year-old power struggle over who has the right to select Catholic bishops is so noteworthy.

As part of its effort to create an independent church free from outside interference in the 1950s, the Chinese regime exerted its right to appoint Catholic bishops, a sacrilege in the eyes of the Holy See, which considers ordination a papal prerogative. According to Catholic ecclesiology, bishops secure global unity and inherit a mission traced back to the 12 apostles; it is the pope who secures this divine apostolic succession. Believers who refused to renounce Rome or recognize a state-ordained leadership created a clandestine church. Into 2012, Beijing still unilaterally named a bishop and sequestered those who defied government oversight. But since the accession of Pope Francis, Beijing and Rome have worked out an ad hoc process of mutual approvals. Since it is informal, confusion remains, disunity festers, vacancies increase, and, in theory, either side could break the fragile equilibrium. Thus: semisecret negotiations over the last three years.

Last month, Hong Kong Archbishop Cardinal John Tong Hon, 77, announced that Beijing and Rome have “already reached consensus” on episcopal appointments. According to Tong, Chinese bishops and state authorities will recommend episcopal candidates and the pope will have a “right of veto.” The agreement is described as a game changer because it confirms the pope as final authority regarding bishops, but it is also a future-oriented solution not intended to resolve other persistent disagreements. It won’t automatically normalize the status of remaining underground bishops, for example, and it kicks the can down the road regarding three bishops with “moral conduct problems” ordained by the Chinese without Vatican permission. The cardinal makes a point of saying that the Sino-Vatican dialogue is unrelated to challenges over territory and sovereignty from Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs, which are essentially political.

This is not just an exercise in optics. From the church’s perspective, an accord will unify a fractured Catholic community. For Francis, it also represents a model of conflict resolution and forgiveness for an ever-anxious flock. Meanwhile, it gives the pope an opportunity to indicate his disapproval of the bellicose rhetoric coming from Washington by actualizing his key mantras—that dialogue is the key to peace and Christians must build bridges, not walls.

For Francis, the deal also represents a model of conflict resolution and forgiveness for an ever-anxious flock.

For China, the deal effectively brings millions of “underground” Chinese Catholics and their bishops into submission by severing Vatican approval for the rival Chinese church. And for Beijing, the victory is even sweeter because the plan has the pope’s imprimatur. Xi, in particular, sees value in using the Vatican to boost his image among the West and its Asian allies. According to Chinese-based Catholics with good relations to the official church, party officials were astounded at Francis’ popularity on his U.S. visit, which dramatically eclipsed the Chinese leader’s trip at the same time.

There’s one potential loser here: if the accord leads to talks over diplomatic recognition—China is one of only a handful of countries with which the Holy See has no formal relations—Beijing will probably insist the Holy See break ties with Taiwan, the island’s only European partner. Vatican diplomats expect such a demand to follow. In that case, Francis will likely agree to break ties with Taiwan because the Holy See has effectively prepared the ground for a rupture by leaving the nuncio position vacant since 1971, when the People’s Republic of China replaced Taiwan as a member of the United Nations Security Council. The Holy See’s sign in Taipei, still attached at the entrance, can simply be taken down and an apostolic representative can continue work. The large Taiwan embassy (on Via della Conciliazione, only 300 feet from the Vatican) could be given the status of a delegation.

Some critics point out that the church itself may be compromised by the deal. Last November, China’s most senior cleric, Cardinal Joseph Zen, retired archbishop of Hong Kong, gave Francis quite a slap in a Wall Street Journal interview titled “The Vatican’s Illusions About Chinese Communism.” Citing Francis’ friendliness toward China—he wrote a congratulatory letter to Xi, who was elected just a day after Francis in 2013; he extolled China as a “reference point of greatness”; he posed for pictures with Chinese parish priests (both official and clandestine) who had been brought to Rome to promote dialogue—Zen accused the pontiff of being naive about Beijing, a criminal regime in the cardinal’s eyes.

Zen described the pope’s drive for reconciliation as “simply ridiculous” and any agreement with China as “totally unacceptable.” He considers concessions to the Communist Party treasonous: any deal, he writes, would amount to the abandonment of the clandestine faithful who refuse to capitulate to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which Beijing established in 1957 as an independent national church purposely cut off from Rome. Beijing then introduced state-appointed bishops, which are against Catholic canon law. From the government’s perspective, the underground church was a criminal network and an illegal political threat.


Yet Zen’s is a minority view. In reality, far more ambiguity exists between China’s official and unofficial church, and the separation itself harms Catholicism’s integrity in the view of most church experts, among them Reverend Lawrence Murphy, president emeritus of Seton Hall University, and the Beijing-based journalist Francesco Sisci, former Italian cultural attaché in China. Indeed, the Church of Rome infiltrated the Patriotic Catholic Association early on. Files at the Vatican are full of letters from Chinese bishops handpicked by the state seeking a papal blessing—which most of them received. Of approximately 110 bishops in China, about 70 were jointly approved by Rome and Beijing, some 30 were endorsed solely by the Holy See, and seven were state-appointed bishops whose status is now under Vatican review. At the local level, priests from the two communities increasingly collaborate. Jeroom Heyndrickx, a missionary priest who has worked in China since 1980 and brought a “mixed” delegation of Chinese priests to Rome on a pilgrimage last April, explained, “Some were from the underground church, most were official, but there’s not the slightest difference between the two in terms of faithfulness to Rome.”

One example demonstrates the complexity: Following some 20 years in jail and another ten years in reeducation camps or under house arrest in northern China for being a Rome-educated priest who resisted party authority, Shanghai Jesuit Aloysius Jin Luxian agreed to direct Shanghai’s seminary when the government reopened it in 1982. (Churches and seminaries were closed during the Cultural Revolution, a policy reversed by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.) Jin had concluded that it was more important to preserve the church and serve its people than wage a hopeless battle against the regime underground. Asked to become an auxiliary bishop for the state in 1985, Jin unsuccessfully sought Vatican approval.

Under Jin’s leadership, the Shanghai diocese revived scores of churches, trained hundreds of priests, started a Catholic publishing company, founded a retreat center, and attracted new faithful. Jin rose to national prominence in both of China’s main state-sanctioned Catholic entities, the Patriotic Catholic Association and the Catholic bishops’ conference, and even gained approval for parishioners to pray for the pope during Mass. He shaped the Chinese-language liturgy that is now standard throughout the country. (Mass was typically said in Latin into the 1980s.) By 2005, it was revealed that the Vatican had quietly blessed his episcopal ordination, although he was formally described in paperwork as an auxiliary bishop, ranked below Shanghai’s underground bishop, a faithful priest but an ineffective administrator considering he lived under house arrest. (By canon law, a diocese can have only one chief bishop at a time.) When Jin died four years ago, he was widely eulogized  by the church as an exceptional Catholic leader.

The fluidity between registered and unofficial Catholicism was also due, in part, to migration. The underground church has its deepest roots in rural areas, where it traces its history back to the seventeenth century, when Jesuit missionaries and converts spread the faith through kinship networks, including indigenous merchants baptized in the Teaching of the Lord of Heaven (as Christianity was called) while living in Beijing and Guangzhou, who brought the faith back to family villages. In contemporary China, as believers moved to urban job centers, they often left underground communities and joined registered churches out of convenience more than choosing sides. Today, according to priests who work there, most Catholic growth is in the official church, not among traditional underground Catholic families. A Freedom House report released last month estimates six million Catholics worship in registered churches and another six million in unregistered ones, where Mass is held in workplaces, at homes, outdoors, or even in borrowed official churches.

The second reason Cardinal Zen’s critique is not widely held is that the Vatican’s approach is pragmatic. In China today, an ad hoc process for appointing priests has emerged: those under consideration for episcopal appointment by the government seek approval from the Vatican, thus managing to be jointly selected without any official mandate instructing them to do so. But as long as Beijing and Rome allow informal arrangements to structure their relationship, the faithful themselves are left confused, and anomalies and outrages are routine.

Tong reflects the attitude of Francis when he describes Hong Kong’s church as a bridge between universal Catholicism and the mainland church. Like the other members of Francis’ “A-team” on China—including Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, credited with breakthroughs in Vatican under Pope Benedict, and Archbishop Claudio Celli, a China desk officer under Pope John Paul II—Tong supports reconciliation between the official and unofficial Catholic communities in China based on decades of personal experience with the Vatican’s trials, errors, and largely unheralded achievements on the mainland.

As long as Beijing and Rome allow informal arrangements to structure their relationship, the faithful themselves are left confused.

Writing in an online diocese publication last July, Tong explained the nature of Sino-Vatican dialogue: its religious goal is restoration of unity between the universal and the local church, its pastoral goal is gaining legal protection for the clandestine church, and the diplomatic goal is a “mutually acceptable plan” to overcome past discord. In Tong’s narrative, discord is the product of misunderstanding: the Chinese government did not trust that the church was uninterested in politics. To achieve noninterference in each other’s domains, Tong explained, the church would avoid engagement with Chinese political authority while the regime would defer to the church’s need to manage internal administration.


The church’s primary concern in China is ecclesiastic, not political. That’s a crucial difference. There can be no functioning universal church where Catholics are cut off from Rome or divided into camps. That’s why the Vatican’s vision of religious life, for 35 years, has turned on reconciliation. Rome’s working theory is that as long as the pope has a formal hand in perpetuating apostolic succession through episcopal appointments, all other problems can be solved. The Patriotic Catholic Association can become an instrument of communication and charity; the bishops’ conference will be one among many others around the world.  

In theory, the Vatican could accept a tacit agreement with Beijing to this effect. A 2006 cable released by WikiLeaks finds Celli suggesting just such an option to the U.S. ambassador. But since the goal today is less power sharing and more normalizing domestic church life, transparency and publication of an accord is the only way to erase the painful, dysfunctional rift. In fact, according to Father John Worthley, an American professor of public administration who has taught in China since the early 1980s—and is, incidentally, a Catholic priest—the main work on the mainland for the last six months has been reuniting official and unofficial church communities: “The situation for the Church in China is like when the Berlin Wall fell. People have been getting ready for years, so when it happens, it will happen fast.”

The Chinese government has long insisted that Catholicism conform to Chinese culture. This agreement signals that Xi considers the church in China to be sufficiently patriotic that it raises no threat. In fact, there is already ample evidence of this. Jinde Charities, founded in 1997 by a priest as the first Catholic nongovernmental organization, now provides disaster relief, care for the elderly, AIDS prevention, and educational programs across the country, with government approval. And a Chinese “third order” of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity founded in Hebei Province three years ago now has some 20,000 lay followers. It seems the work begun in 1601 by the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, a Ming imperial court adviser, has reached fruition. 

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