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Has Pope Francis sold out Chinese Catholics?

  • 27 September 2018


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.

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