China needs more than Vatican diplomacy



On September 22, the Vatican signed a 'provisional agreement' with the People's Republic of China. Pundits view it as either a sell-out or a success. Simply, the agreement concerns the appointment of bishops, with the Vatican's two-fold aim being to improve relations between it and the Chinese government and within Chinese Catholic communities.

Chris Johnston cartoon has Pope Francis up a ladder erecting a small cross beneath a large Chinese flagThe accord removes a major stumbling block to the resumption of international relations, given that the government has claimed the right to appoint bishops, which the Vatican has resolutely opposed. Interestingly, the Vatican and the government in Vietnam jointly select episcopal candidates, and in 16th century Luxembourg the king appointed bishops by right of papal indult, so there are precedents.

Additionally, 'With a view to sustaining the proclamation of the Gospel in China, the Holy Father Pope Francis has decided to readmit to full ecclesial communion the remaining 'official' bishops ordained without pontifical mandate.' Seven of eight named 'official' bishops are still alive. To understand what is at play, it is first necessary to provide some historical background.

In light of the self-serving and at times criminal behavior of bishops around the world as revealed by the sexual abuse crisis, it might seem strange that the appointment of bishops is such a neuralgic issue for Vatican-China relations. In China, however, the appointment of bishops has become the litmus test of a so-called orthodoxy in much the same way that right-to-life issues are in the USA. And yet the role of the Chinese bishop was not always so symbolically weighted.

In fact, although the first Chinese Catholic bishop was consecrated in 1685, it took over two centuries for the next ones, when Pope Pius XI ordained six Chinese priests as bishops in Rome in 1926. This act emphasised that Chinese Catholics should be guiding their own church. Even so it was only in 1946 that Divine Word bishop Thomas Tian Gengxin became the first Chinese cardinal.

Being a Chinese Catholic bishop is thus a relatively recent occurrence, not even a 100-year phenomenon in more than 400 years of continuous history, and the church had survived well enough all the same.

Since 1926, however, the bishop has become the personification of both universality and also particularity in that a Chinese bishop embodies a Chinese expression of Catholicism. Upon him is placed much symbolic weight, in some ways more than elsewhere, where bishops can often seem absent entities.


"From the Vatican point of view, recognising the bishops hopefully enables 'the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to full communion of all Chinese Catholics'. This is not guaranteed."


The Chinese government understands this and since 1949 has sought to control Catholic communities by monitoring its bishops. By the late 1950s, apart from Bishop James Walsh (imprisoned in 1958 and released in 1970), all other foreign bishops had been expelled or had left. Bishops now were all Chinese.

Furthermore, several expressions of agency became synonymous with the position of bishop. There was the inherent value of the bishop being Chinese as this represents the autonomy of the local church. There is the symbolism invested in the position of bishop in terms of him being a conduit between the local community and the international church, personified by the pope. Then finally there is the legitimacy conferred by whether the individual has been approved by the Vatican and the government, or by just the Vatican and not the government, or by the government and supposedly not the Vatican. (Many of this latter group had actually quietly regularised their relationship with Rome in recent years.)

The provisional agreement therefore does away with ambiguity concerning an individual's standing with Rome while preserving the agency of the government, as in Vietnam. This is significant progress, as newly ordained bishops now express all three types of agency, whereas a bishop not approved by the Vatican was not accepted by all Chinese Catholics, and a bishop not recognised by the government did not have legitimacy in the eyes of the state. Both parties may now recognise a bishop and, so long as the agreement holds, this will be the case into the future. Institutional recognition, it is believed, will now prompt communal acceptance. This is the first goal of the action. In the words of Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, 'the objective of the accord was not political but pastoral'.

And yet the political is important too, because the written agreement thus restores a relationship that had been broken, on both sides, for more than 60 years. In 1949 the Vatican refused to recognise the People's Republic of China and in 1951 the PRC expelled the Apostolic Internuncio to the Republic of China. This ended official contact. (Technically Archbishop Riberi was without diplomatic standing, because of the Vatican position, and therefore a visa over-stayer.)

Yet what the agreement will not and cannot do, however, is ensure that all the Chinese Catholics themselves accept it as a way forward. The second goal of the agreement is thus in jeopardy. From the Vatican point of view, recognising the bishops hopefully enables 'the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to full communion of all Chinese Catholics'. This is not guaranteed.

For many, Vatican recognition of these bishops is wrong. Since the 1950s the Catholic Church has only been one in name, as it split into two main groups. Some Catholics sought to worship within the new political reality and became registered official communities, whose bishops were approved by the government and maybe by Rome. Others refused to accept the new government, and worship in un-registered unofficial communities. Their bishops were not government sanctioned (and even sometimes unknown to Rome).

As this situation began during the Cold War, this latter group quickly became called the 'underground' church, especially by strident anti-communists overseas, regardless of the visibility of the church structures and the known identities of the groups' members. A defining feature for these unregistered communities was the question of whether their bishop was approved by Rome, and they certainly suffered much to preserve this view of Catholicism. They also declared all other communities schismatic.

Now that the Vatican agreement has declared all bishops in union, and by extension bestowed authenticity on all communities — something Pope Benedict XVI also did in his 2007 letter to the 'bishops, priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People's Republic of China' (emphasis added) — it is like the Catholic who has eaten fish on Fridays all her life who is now told that it is no longer important. There is confusion, grief about lost opportunity and of course anger (especially if one does not like fish!). Anger and grief can often blind one to other points of view.

Additionally, once a community that has so strongly identified itself with suffering is told it no longer has to suffer, then no amount of papal communications will convince it of that fact. Only a change of heart and acts of reconciliation will achieve this. It is thus a question of whether all Chinese Catholic communities can move beyond prior politicised labels and senses of identity and join in worship together. Until this occurs, the provisional agreement will remain only a diplomatic solution and not a pastoral reality.  



Jeremy ClarkeDr Jeremy Clarke is Director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd. He completed his doctorate in Asian and Pacific History at the ANU, with a particular focus on Chinese Catholic history.

Topic tags: Jeremy Clarke, China, Catholic Church



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Existing comments

Given China's track record on human rights in Tibet and internally in China to religious minorities, and their attitude to foreign CEOs, one would take the "provisional agreement" with the Vatican with a grain of salt.

Frank Armstrong | 27 September 2018  

Thanks Jeremy. One similarity between the Peoples' Republic of China and the Catholic Church is the authoritarian nature of both. China is notorious for its human rights abuses and the Catholic Church is now notorious for its widespread clerical child sexual abuse and cover-ups. I suggest people give input into the Australian 2020 Plenary Council, which can be done online. Unless Catholics speak up and pray hard to the Holy Spirit for guidance, the crisis in the Catholic Church could see even more people drift away from the Church and there is also the danger of another schism, as there is big gulf between the progressives and the conservatives in the Catholic Church.

Grant Allen | 27 September 2018  

Pius XII, supporter of Ante Pavelic, Franco, Salazar, Mussolini, friend of von Ribbentrop and such, used excommunication in his Cold War against the PRC and individual Marxists around the world. Our media told us that the PRC was a "persecutor of Christians". Franco's Spain, with an oppressively pro-Catholic concordat - Pacelli's ideological baby - jailed more priests, including Jesuits, than the Commo's did. Taking the side of oppressed workers might have been OK with Leo XIII, if Rerum Novarum's any guide, but not with Pius XII, whose response to the advance of the 3rd Reich, sharing its frustration at Stalingrad, was His Holiness' Encyclical against (wait for it, brothers in Christ) not Nazism, but Communism! It was directed at USA's people via their Bishops, with the aim of helping Operation Barbarossa (named after Frederick, the Holy Roman Imperial Crusader against Slav Orthodox Heretics. Good one, Adolf.) It might have worked, if Hitler hadn't declared war on the USA soon after Pearl Harbour (not so bright, Adolf!) and USA's 5th column had been more numerous. In the late 1950s, Beijing's Anglican Cathedral needed major building restoration. As in any city from Melbourne to Morocco, Municipal Authorities had to approve the proposed works, and this during the godless reign of Mao Zedong and Chou En Lai. The Diocese was informed that the Cathedral was regarded as culturally important, so the Municipal Authority approved and heavily subsidised the work.

james marchment | 28 September 2018  

No amount of Doublespeak can hide a stark characteristic of Marxism/Leftism—laicism, the secularization of society in general, with its main target being Christianity and, in the Spanish context, the Catholic Church. James Marchment states, “Franco’s Spain…jailed more priests…than the Commos’s did.” Really? Every November 6, the Catholic Church in Spain commemorates the saints martyred by the Communists during the Spanish Civil War. What we do know is that some 6,832 religious were murdered including 13 bishops and 4,184 priests, and as many as 20,000 churches were destroyed. But the killings by the Republican-Socialist Coalition began in 1931, well before the Civil War commenced. The government banned religious orders, Catholic education and religious cemeteries, and refused to stop Communist arson, with Manuel Azana the head of State stating “All the convents of Spain are not worth the life of one Republican.” As for the old canard about Pope Pius X11 being pro-Nazi, Rabbi David Dalin’s book, “The Myth of Hitler’s Pope” exposes the real agenda of the dishonest myth-makers—to attack the papacy, Christianity and religion as a whole. The book demonstrates how Pius was anti-Nazi and a friend and protector of the Jewish people in their hour of need.

Ross Howard | 02 October 2018  

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