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Has Pope Francis sold out Chinese Catholics?



On a pure numbers basis, China is one of the top 25 most Catholic countries on Earth. Exact numbers are hard to lock down, but the Catholic population floats somewhere between nine and 12 million — easily double the Australian population. But like so much of China, large raw numbers don't equal power for minorities. A freshly inked and still secretive Provisional Agreement between the Chinese government and the Vatican promises to improve that. Believers aren't so sure.

A Chinese Catholic woman takes communion at the Palm Sunday Mass during the Easter Holy Week at an 'underground' or 'unofficial' church on 9 April 2017. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)Catholicism isn't new to China, it was introduced some four centuries ago as European missionaries took on the world. But it has had a tumultuous recent past. After the revolution, religion could be practised but only under the watchful eye of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA).

This pushed many followers and clergy underground, creating a two-stream Catholic church. One stayed in the open, dealing with SARA and ensuring it stayed on the right side of the government; the other practised in living rooms and protected clergy who remained loyal to the Vatican after official relations were killed off in the early 1950s.

Every aspect of life in China is susceptible to the whims of the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party and religion is no different. As Premier Xi Jinping has tightened his grip on power, religion has become a vital part of winning over party cadres and average citizens alike.

For the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang, this means a brazen crackdown and disappearing to 'reeducation camps' amid fears of Islamic terrorism taking root in the country. Chinese Christians get off much lighter — but only just. Earlier this month an underground Protestant church was shut down in Beijing, reportedly due to the distributing of 'illegal materials'.

A reignition of China-Holy See relations can thank the fact that Xi and Pope Francis found themselves at the head of their respective organisations at the same time. Xi's motives are self-evident, but for the Pope his desire to expand the church has trumped all. The billion-plus population of China is ripe for evangelising and a deal with the CCP is necessary to getting there. It's a tough bet to have made and is expected to enrage Chinese Catholics amid accusations he has 'sold out' to the Chinese government.

To unify the two streams of Chinese Catholicism, the Vatican agreed to allow the government say on who is permitted to serve as bishop. At this stage it is not known if this means a collaborative process, or if the Vatican will select bishops from a Party approved shortlist.


"Francis says he has agreed to a deal so as expand the Church and better look after the believers of China. Why can't that come hand in hand with transparency?"


It's difficult to imagine what this could possibly be called if not 'selling out'. That there is more in the agreement which has not yet been revealed to China's Catholics underscores the anxiety no doubt felt by the community. Still, the Pope is aware of the 'certain confusion'. In a letter released this week, he aims to neutralise these fears.

'Some feel doubt and perplexity, while others sense themselves somehow abandoned by the Holy See and anxiously question the value of their sufferings,' he wrote. He continues, outlining his respect for the Catholics of China as well as China's broader culture.

'I have always looked upon China as a land of great opportunities and the Chinese people as the creators and guardians of an inestimable patrimony of culture and wisdom, refined by resisting adversity and embracing diversity, and which, not by chance, entered into contact from early times with the Christian message.'

Certainly a respectable take, but how true does it ring for those who have spent Good Friday Mass in a lounge room overseen by a priest whose allegiance to the Vatican over the Party means he may not be serving the Christmas Eve Mass?

The Provisional Agreement follows nearly a year of very quiet talks between Chinese and Vatican delegates after a February law further tightening restrictions on religious activity on the mainland. Those who have spent careers walking the balance of China-Holy See relations were quick to raise an issue with talks. Hong Kong's former archbishop Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun has maintained all year that any deal would not be in the interests of China's Catholics, despite ambitions.

Churchgoers in Hong Kong told local media they were wary but upbeat after the announcement. Preferring to take a 'wait and see' approach, parishioners said they were not worried an agreement would end with more government intervention within the churches of the semi-autonomous island.

Taiwan may not be quite as lucky. With diplomatic allies across much of the world abandoning the island under pressure from China, Catholics and non-Catholics alike are concerned that any agreement would see the last remaining European ally turn its back on Taiwan.

Which is the crux of the problem here, about which, despite a beautifully written letter, the Vatican has done little. Are we, as modern day believers, still expected to accept a plainly opaque leadership brokering deals with, until very, very recently, unfriendly governments on the basis of 'Rome knows best'?

Francis says he has agreed to a deal so as expand the Church and better look after the believers of China. Why can't that come hand in hand with transparency?



Erin CookErin Cook is a Jakarta-based journalist with a focus on South East Asia, and editor of the SEA news digest Dari Mulut ke Mulut.




Main image: A Chinese Catholic woman takes communion at the Palm Sunday Mass during the Easter Holy Week at an 'underground' or 'unofficial' church on 9 April 2017. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Erin Cook, Duterte, China, Catholic Church, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

The communities of catholics wherever they are are called to service not to power. The Pope as the Servant of the Servants of God has had to make a judgment on how best to serve the needs of his flock. I'm confident that Francis has prayed earnestly for discernment on this issue. China has ever since the days of Matteo Ricci been of profound interest to the Society of Jesus. Francis, I get the impression, whose homeland was Christianed by Spanish Jesuits, has absorbed that missionary spirit. It may not conform with Realpolitik but Francis's policy of dialogue & openmindedness is one of faith, hopefulness & care for all Catholics in PRC.

Uncle Pat | 28 September 2018  

Uncle Pat, what you say in pure sentiment and will never bear the scrutiny of analysis. Pope Francis may be a numbers player but given the mistakes of Pius 12, why cant the draft agreement be tabled for us to read and criticise. Pope Francis, bless him, doesnt know more than the rest of us, despite his litany of advisers.

Frank Armstrong | 28 September 2018  

2 of 2…Therefore, the most fundamental task in our social political and ideological work is at all times to hold high the sign of the Cross, to arm the minds of the people throughout the world with it and PERSISTLY use it to command every field of activity” The cover has long gone, like much of my old self, the remaining pages are yellowing and torn, some words can no longer be read but it is of no importance as there is no vacuum in my heart, as to some degree His Word now lives. To anyone who may consider reading The Little Yellow Book (if you can obtain one) note it is a tool for contemplation, as it contains the 'living, Word of God which is supernatural and radial, it cannot be misunderstood by anyone approaching his Word (Will) with honesty, it’s beauty (Truth) cannot help but inspire integrity, no matter of what religion, race, creed, state of being you are or belong to. Whatever happened to the little yellow book? But more importantly whatever happened to our God given ideals once propagated by the church. kevin your brother In Christ.

Kevin Walters | 28 September 2018  

1 of 2. “It's difficult to imagine what this could possibly be called if not 'selling out”… For over thirty five years. I have carried a small yellow book the “Thoughts of Jesus Christ”. It was issued by the Catholic Truth Society London in 1972 to combat Mao’s Little Red Book (older readers will remember it). “The little yellow book allows Christ to speak for himself, it presents no shallow fashionable image of him It expresses his unique authority his clear ethic and good news of the kingdom, as it reveals Him God-man, the risen Lord, whose message is truly radial because it is supernatural…Quote “Jesus Christ thought is the only message for an era in which human beings find themselves alone and purposeless”…The only information given is direction under different headings with Gospel reference. The simplicity of the book with minimal information impels the reader to contemplate the words of Jesus Christ in different life situations, this can be and is illuminating and encourages further study and spiritual growth, the onward transformation of the human heart. “It is the most powerful ideological weapon for opposing oppression, misery, and inhumanity. Jesus Christ’s thought is the guiding principle for all of those who would follow him to perfect manhood… Continue

Kevin Walters | 29 September 2018  

“It's difficult to imagine what this could possibly be called if not 'selling out'.” Many agree with this statement. Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen has denounced the agreement as a betrayal of underground clergy and their congregants who were often persecuted for their defiance of the state. Anthony Lam, an expert on the Chinese church at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong has said that although the Vatican will retain the power to put forward candidates, “I believe that in the process, the Holy See will agree to give the right of veto to the Beijing government.” And it seems that China also maintains its longstanding demand for the Holy See to cut ties with Taiwan before normalizing relations. One must also question the wisdom of the decision. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano has accused Pope Francis of knowing about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual abuse but still made McCarrick “one of his principal agents in governing the Church, in regard to the United States, the Curia, and even China, as we are seeing these days with great concern and anxiety for that martyr Church.”

Ross Howard | 01 October 2018  

I take this regional journalist's gloss on the Pope's diplomatic arrangements at face value, especially as they are backed up by people who obviously have done their homework. It is dispiriting that, even in this journal that looks at our faith in its relation to the affairs of twenty-first century problems, we still see a phalanx of medieval thinkers, for whom the church is a never-changing given, where God just expects us to believe and have faith that the official Church is all, and we are nothing; we need only obey. It's not hearing from them that is depressing, but that they still think that way. God gave us brains to move forward and take on the world, to change it for the better. The fixes that we walk past are our assent to the inappropriate arrangements by our church leaders.

Pat Mahony | 21 December 2018  

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