The revelation in late June of a new “pastoral document” from the Vatican to the Chinese Church caused retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen (b. 1932), to spring into action. Cardinal Zen has emerged as the conscience of the Catholic Church in the Chinese cultural world, including during the recent unrest in Hong Kong over the proposed extradition bill. Referring to the pastoral document, which provides pastoral guidelines for the civil registration of Catholic clergy with Chinese authorities as required by the new regulations on religious activities, the Cardinal stated on his website that: “This document has radically turned upside what is normal and what is abnormal, what is rightful and what is pitiable. Those who wrote it hope perhaps that the pitied minority will die a natural death. By this minority I mean not only underground priests, but also the many brothers in the official community who have worked with great tenacity to achieve change, hoping for the support of the Holy See.”
Cardinal Zen, however, did much more than just post a message on his website. According to the LifeSiteNews website, the octogenarian then boarded a plane from Hong Kong to Rome on June 29th, only 24 hours after first learning of the new, controversial pastoral instructions. Upon arrival in Rome, Cardinal Zen proceeded to the Papal residence and handed a letter seeking an audience with Pope Francis to discuss the matter further. After some initial hesitancy, on July 3, the Cardinal was invited to dine with the Pope and the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to discuss the urgent matter involving the Church in China. Zen reported that “It is impolite to argue at dinner. We spoke (only) about the situation in Hong Kong. As for the pastoral document and my statement, I only mentioned it to the Pope in the last few minutes. The Pope said several times, ‘I will pay attention to this matter.’ This is the only sentence I (have) brought back to my people.”
More importantly, in a show of courage in the face of professed papal infallibility, and in echoes of the Protestant revolutionary leader Martin Luther, Zen presented Pope Francis and Cardinal Parolin with nine criticisms of the pastoral document. The criticisms included a quote from a letter of former Pope Benedict XVI regarding the Underground Church clergy in the People’s Republic of China (PRC): “Some of them, not wishing to be subjected to undue control exercised over the life of the Church, and eager to maintain total fidelity to the Successor of Peter [the Pope] and to Catholic doctrine, have felt themselves constrained to opt for clandestine consecration.”
Cardinal Zen’s concerns, however, seem to run counter to Pope Francis’ infatuation with a form of globe-trotting ecumenism, which could be finessed by Beijing to the detriment of Taiwan and its Catholic believers. Pope Francis was reportedly very excited in 2014 when, in the early period of his Papacy, the Vatican received permission to fly over Chinese air space en route to a pastoral visit to South Korea. This was, according to Reuters, a concession that had been withheld from his well-traveled predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who had to skirt Chinese territory during his many travels to Asia. “This is a sign of détente, for sure,” Father Bernardo Cervellera, head of the Rome-based AsiaNews agency and a specialist in the Catholic Church in China, was quoted as stating.
Reuters reported further at the time that “Pope Francis sent a telegram of greeting to General Secretary Xi Jinping and the Chinese people as he flew over the country whose communist government does not allow Catholics to recognize his authority.” Pope Francis’s message to Xi in August 2014 stated that “Upon entering Chinese air space, I extend my best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation.”
The fact that the Vatican had decided to undertake a charm offensive with the atheistic regime in Beijing was confirmed when the Vatican’s number two official, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told an Italian magazine that “The Holy See favors a respectful and constructive dialogue with authorities to find a solution to the problems that limit the complete practising of the faith by Catholics and to guarantee an atmosphere of real religious freedom.” This movement toward a thaw on the Vatican side was all the more remarkable because, as The New York Times reported on July 28, 2014, Beijing was then in the midst of an anti-Christian campaign that involved the removal of crosses, using cranes and blow torches, from some 100 church steeples in Zhejiang province—some of those churches being Catholic.
The priority of a new Pope to make inroads into unfriendly territory coincided, after the election of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, with a Beijing policy priority of choking Taiwan’s international space by picking off, one by one, Taipei’s remaining diplomatic allies. In December 2016, months after President Tsai’s inauguration, the African nation of Saõ Tomé and Príncipe switched diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing. In June of 2017, Taiwan’s long-standing ally Panama broke relations and recognized Beijing. This was followed in 2018 by El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Burkina Faso. Thus Beijing was able, through behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvers and economic incentives, to reduce the number of states with formal diplomatic relations with Taipei from 22 to 17. Beijing has been particularly heavy handed in its pressure on the Pacific Island nation of Palau, once a favored destination for mainland Chinese tourists, by imposing a “tourist ban” that cut drastically the number of tour groups headed there.
Above all, the Vatican remains the jewel in the crown as far as Beijing is concerned—being the only state in Europe still having formal diplomatic relations with Taipei and representing the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Xi Jinping’s iron-fisted rule has included an escalating clamp down on religious groups, a number of whom had experienced some easing of restrictions during his immediate predecessors’ rule, so the question of how to finesse an external religious center of power such as that represented by the Vatican remains a sticking point.
The post-Tiananmen Square Massacre obsessive need by the Communist Party of China to exercise thought control over all civil groups and organizations hit a brick wall when it considered a community of domestic religious and laity answering to an outside power. Still, there were indications last year that some progress was being made with the Vatican in behind-the-scenes negotiations on such thorny topics as the appointment of bishops. On September 22, 2018, “A Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and China” on the appointment of bishops was signed in Beijing, “in the hope that it will contribute positively to the life of the Church in China, the good of the Chinese people and peace in the world,” according to Vatican News.
During that same month, Anna Fifield of The Washington Post reported new moves toward religious suppression in China in an article titled “With wider crackdowns on religion, Xi’s China seeks to put state stamp on faith.” Fifield observed that “All of the five religions officially tolerated by Chinese leaders—Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism—are now experiencing draconian treatment from the government of President Xi Jinping, who has stoked nationalism and promoted loyalty to the Communist Party in ways not seen in decades.” A Protestant pastor, whose church in Beijing had come under official scrutiny, was quoted as stating that “They’re trying to ‘party-fy’ the church. We just want to depoliticize the church.”
So why would the Vatican pick such a particularly sensitive time for religious freedom in China to cozy up to the dragon? The Vatican apparently decided to keep the details quiet. America, the Jesuit magazine, reported on December 7, 2018:
The exact contents of the ‘provisional agreement’ will be kept secret […]. It appears that the Chinese government will have a voice in the selection of bishops, but Pope Francis insists he will have the final say. (The exact process for naming and vetting candidates is not clear.) As part of the agreement, the Vatican will reconcile seven ‘illegitimate’ Chinese bishops (bishops ordained without the papal mandate). It is the first such public agreement between the Vatican and China since the Communist Party came to power in October 1949. […] Announcing the agreement, Greg Burke, the director of the Holy See Press Office, stated that ‘the objective of the accord is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops that are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by the Chinese authorities.’
Here, a fellow communist nation with a sizable Catholic minority—Vietnam—seems to have provided a potential blueprint. The Catholic website Crux, in a September 26 article titled “Expert says Vietnam model was ‘Blueprint’ for Vatican-China Deal” quotes Henry Cappello, Founder and President of Caritas In Veritate, as stating that “I’m aware that the Vietnam proposal was, if not a blueprint, definitely a lead” in discussing how the agreement with China should look.” Vietnam, of course, has a different and much more interconnected history with the Vatican and the Catholic Church, and is the only communist country in Asia, since 2011, to have a nonresident papal representative to the country. The seventh meeting of the Vietnam-Holy See joint working group, which discussed paving the way toward full diplomatic relations, took place in Hanoi on December 19th. One complication, according to Crux is that Vietnam remains a Tier 1 country—signifying the harshest level of repression of religious liberty—according to the US Commission on Religious Freedom’s 2018 annual report—as does China. A Tier 1 country, the report said, is “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly severe religious freedom violations, meaning those that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious.”
Pope Francis, however, seems inclined to go forward in making diplomatic inroads in communist Asia. Last October, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a practicing Catholic, relayed a verbal message to Pope Francis at the Vatican from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to visit North Korea. The Pope’s response, according to Reuters, was that he would “consider it.” If the Pope would consider a visit to a nation where, according to refugee reports, Catholic and other Christian believers are summarily tortured and put to death if found in the possession of Bibles or religious relics, then visiting China would not seem to present any particular obstacle. Beijing would, however, presumably extract a price before letting the Pope in to see his flock—that would be the abandonment of Taiwan and removal of the Apostolic Nuncio in Taipei.
Another complication, however, remains—the division of the estimated 10 to 12 million Catholic believers in China between those who attend the state-controlled Patriotic Association services, which severed ties from Rome after 1949, and adherents to an underground Catholic Church, which remained loyal to the Holy See through decades of oppression.
According to America, a Jesuit magazine, the decades of rule by Mao Zedong were especially brutal: “The Maoist years were not kind to the church. Chinese Catholics refer to these years as a jiaonan, a persecution without precedent.” The magazine then offered this warning: “The Chinese government has seen the underground church as a thorn in its side for decades, and for decades it has tried to bring that church to heel. Beijing probably sees the accord as a way of further controlling the underground community. If the Vatican is willing to be co-opted into this project, then all the better.”
There has been an ongoing, bitter division between the “patriotic” and underground branches of the Catholic Church in China for decades. Underground Catholics reportedly see rewarding “patriotic” pseudo-bishops with official positions as a betrayal of their steadfast devotion to the Papacy during the darkest days of persecution. The Vatican seems to be seeking to sidestep the entire issue in its backroom negotiations with the Communist leadership in Beijing.
Cardinal Zen had told Reuters immediately after the Vatican-China Agreement was announced last September that “They’re giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal. […] The consequences will be tragic and long lasting, not only for the Church in China but for the whole Church [and that it will deal a significant blow to Pope Francis’ credibility]. Maybe that’s why they might keep the agreement secret.”
Until the release of the new “pastoral document” in June, Vatican-Beijing rapprochement did seem to be slowing down. In the months since the September announcement of the agreement, the Vatican has been consumed by renewed sexual abuse charges, which have erupted in such far flung locations as Pennsylvania and Poland. New charges have led to the court conviction of an Australian Cardinal and the laicization of a former Archbishop of Washington, DC. Pope Francis has been put on the defensive, being criticized as being initially too anemic in his response to these renewed accusations. And in May, a letter surfaced from conservative Catholic critics calling upon the bishops to censor the Pope “for heresy” for allegedly being too liberal and not adhering to orthodox Catholic doctrine.
With all this on his plate, it seems Pope Francis may have to put his dreams of visiting Communist China and North Korea on a back burner. That can only be good news not only for the underground Church adherents in the PRC, but also for Taiwan’s roughly half million Catholic believers. It is also beneficial to a democratic nation that adheres to the values of human rights and religious freedom, which Beijing abhors, and is currently under siege with regards to its international space. So, despite Beijing’s persistent efforts to further diplomatically isolate Taiwan, it seems that an Apostolic Nuncio will not take up residency in Beijing in the foreseeable future.
The main point: Vatican City, as the only state in Europe granting diplomatic recognition to Taiwan and representing the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, remains the jewel in the crown for Beijing in its campaign to choke Taiwan’s international space by picking off its diplomatic allies. Complications for a Vatican-Beijing détente remain, however, including the division between the underground and “patriotic” Catholic Churches in China and the increasing repression of religion in China under Xi Jinping’s tight-fisted regime.