Numerous reports in recent weeks speculate that a grand reconciliation between the Chinese authorities and the Catholic Church is in the works. There are ongoing private negotiations between the two institutions with Pope Francis visibly eager for a positive outcome, his Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin almost as much so.
The issue between the two sides revolves mainly on different concepts of autonomy: The Chinese insist that the local Catholic Church, like all other religious institutions, manage its own internal affairs within the nation, especially in the selection of its own leadership, without foreign control, foreign control here meaning the control of the Holy See. However, the Church insists on its own institutional autonomy and its freedom to conduct its affairs in accord with Catholic doctrine and practice.
According to canon law and Catholic doctrine, the bishops, the successors of the apostles, must be named by the Pope. The Chinese authorities insist that Chinese Catholics select their own bishops—by means of an officially sponsored and sustained Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a Leninist transmission belt connected to the State Administration of Religious Affairs and the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, in effect vesting ultimate control of the Church in the Communist Party.
Although the Communist party insists that its own membership be atheist, freedom of worship is guaranteed by the PRC constitution. The Party insists, however, that all religious institutions accept Party “leadership.” The Catholic Church of the early 1950s, for its part, was strongly anti-communist, and tensions were high with the new regime. The Vatican apparently was ready enough to accept the new order as the de facto government of China, but the papal internuncio (ambassador) and large segments of the Church in China resisted attempts by the Party to establish its supremacy over ecclesiastical affairs. The PRC broke relations with the Vatican in 1951. In subsequent years, obdurate priests, religious, and laity faced imprisonment. The final rupture came in 1957 when new bishops, selected by the Patriotic Association, were ordained without papal approval.
During the Cultural Revolution, all overt religious activity was suppressed, reviving after the death of Chairman Mao. The authorities continued to insist on the “self-selection” of bishops, however, the ordination of new “illicit” bishops in 1979 precipitated the formation of an “underground” Church, professing loyalty to the Pope, in contradistinction from the “official” Church under the Patriotic Association. To this day, the question of episcopal appointments is the key issue hindering a Sino-Vatican reconciliation.
However, there is ample historical precedent for participation of secular authorities in the selection of bishops. Even currently, all but perhaps seven of the bishops in the “official” Chinese Church reign with the consent both of the Pope and the Party. In a pastoral letter of January 25 2017, Cardinal Tong Hon (John Tong), bishop of Hong Kong, even asserted that, “China and the Holy See have reached a consensus on the problem of appointing bishops.”
Some conditions are propitious for a grand reconciliation within the Catholic community in China. The underground community, a conventional but misleading term for a community that is not a secret organization, but, for the most part, operates openly, has received little support from Rome, while the official Church tacitly adheres to orthodox doctrine and in practice accepts papal authority. There may still be factional differences and personal resentments between the two communities, but both agree on matters of liturgy, on questions of faith and morals, and on what Cardinal Tong calls “ecclesiology,” that is, on theological questions pertaining to the nature and organization of the Church.
In the past, civil authorities have acknowledged the Pope’s authority in “spiritual” matters. The Pope, under Benedict XVI, has also gone the distance in recognizing the legitimacy of the civil authorities in the political and legal sphere, and reiterated the long-standing Vatican position: the episcopal ordinations conducted by the official Church are “valid,” however illicit; and the official Church should not be considered “schismatic,” that is, it has not broken permanently from the universal Church.
But while there has been much enthusiasm about the impending reconciliation in the secular media and many non-Chinese Church venues, the reaction to Cardinal Tong’s speculation by Chinese Catholics and the civil authorities has been, at most, tepid. The news of this potential démarche comes as the authorities are strongly reasserting the need for political control over all religious organizations, with General Secretary Xi Jinping denouncing any attempt at “foreign” influence over religion in China.
Since 2011, breaking with what had been the practice, several “illicit” bishops, unacceptable to Rome have been ordained. There has been increased pressure on Christian groups, both Catholic and Protestant, especially in regions such as Zhejiang, where Christian movements are strongest, with the authorities tearing down crosses, demolishing churches, and seeking to obliterate any evidence of Christian presence.
Cardinal Tong advises Chinese Catholics to be prepared to accept “essential” freedom rather than “complete” freedom— since to push for too much would risk what freedom they already have. This, no doubt, is prudent. But many Chinese Catholics, both official and underground, seem to worry that, particularly given the eagerness of the Pope and his diplomatic apparatus for a visible reconciliation, that the Holy See will settle for any deal rather than stand on the principles that have so long hindered a deal, with the consequence of legitimating the position of the Church as an ancillary to the Party. The longer term consequence could be to foster religious indifference among Catholics, with many fading into the secular background, while the more serious believers find stronger spiritual meat in the burgeoning but perhaps shallow-rooted Protestant sects. This, conceivably, would be an outcome the authorities would not much regret.
In addition to the question of bishops, the authorities insist that the Vatican break its diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This would be a major diplomatic loss for Taiwan, the Vatican being its last formal diplomatic outpost in Europe. However, it would be unseemly for the Pope to engage in the ritual of pronouncing who is the sole legitimate government, or whether there is one China or two, or whether Taiwan is a “part” of China—in effect, taking a substantive position in an ongoing and irresolvable political dispute.
Cardinal Tong stresses that a reconciliation requires that the authorities recognize the 30-some surviving underground bishops. Also, Pope Benedict declared, the Patriotic Association, as it currently functions, to be incompatible with the Catholic faith. Tong proposes that it redefine itself as a voluntary organization dedicated to works of charity. Both of these measures would be unpalatable to the apparatus of the Patriotic Association and to their backers in the Party.
Greater autonomy for the Catholic Church would set a precedent for NGOs and other associations to demand the same for themselves, threatening the guiding principle of Party leadership. The question of reconciliation is no doubt as contentious among the Chinese authorities as it is in the Church.
It is perhaps good that the current Vatican apparatus lacks the subtlety and guile of its Borgia and Medici predecessors. Steering the relationship with China, however, still requires a modicum of unsentimental and unillusioned realism. Perhaps the institutional Church might do well to heed to the injunction of being as gentle as doves, as wise as serpents.