GARY SANDS. Vatican–China relations are warming up, but at what cost?

Oct 25, 2018

The Vatican is drawing closer to China. With the signing in September 2018 of a provisional agreement on the long-contested appointment of bishops in China, many are questioning what this development means for Catholicism in China and for the Vatican’s ties with Taiwan.

This article was published by East Asia Forum on the 23rd of October 2018. 

In China, the Catholic Church is divided between a state-sponsored church governed by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) and ‘underground’ churches that hold congregations virtually or in homes. The CPCA is managed by the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), while the underground churches operate without a formal structure or leadership other than sworn allegiance to the Pope. Currently, there are some 10 to 12 million Catholics in China, representing about 10 per cent of China’s Christian population.

China’s Protestant population has been growing by an average of 10 per cent annually since 1979. They now number between 93 million and 115 million — greater than the number of CCP members. Other than Catholicism and Protestantism, the officially atheist CCP recognises and allows for the practice of three other religions: Buddhism, Daoism and Islam. The crackdown on traditional religions like Buddhism and Daoism during the Cultural Revolution, the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and a spiritual vacuum as China grows rich are some of the reasons behind the growth of Christianity in China.

Prior to the provisional agreement, the CPCA appointed bishops based on political considerations. Since bishops are normally confirmed by the Pope, the CPCA-appointed bishops are not recognised by the Vatican. Some Chinese bishops in the underground churches appointed themselves and so may not be recognised by either Beijing or the Vatican. The newly signed provisional agreement purports to standardise appointments, with the CPCA selecting bishops for consideration by the Pope, who would have final veto power.

Some analysts welcome the deal, arguing that it is a small first step toward improving relations between the Vatican and Beijing. Relations between the two have been contentious since Vatican envoy Antonio Riberi was expelled from the mainland in 1951, marking the beginning of a state-sponsored anti-Catholic campaign in China. The Vatican hopes the pact ‘will contribute positively to the life of the Church in China, the good of the Chinese people and peace in the world’. Many agree and have faith that the Vatican can leverage the agreement and its moral authority towards the promotion of greater religious freedom in China.

Others are critical of the agreement, including Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong. Zen accused the Vatican of ‘selling out’: ‘What will the government say to Catholics in China? “Obey us, the Holy See is already in agreement with us?”’ Zen is also sceptical of the terms of the deal, wondering why the agreement is ‘provisional’ and expressing concerns that the two sides may have hidden agendas. Other members of the public went as far as accusing the Vatican of ‘dealing with the devil’.

The Vatican is squandering the legitimacy of its moral authority by bestowing its ‘good housekeeping seal of approval’ on Beijing at a time of increased religious persecution in China. This has included ‘the harassment and detention of Christian believers, blocking entry to sites of worship, interrupting gatherings, dismantling crosses, demolishing churches, and disbanding congregations’. More recently, international attention is focussing on the up to one million Muslim Uyghurs of the western Chinese region of Xinjiang being held in re-education camps — ostensibly detained for religious practices such as praying or going to mosques.

There is also the question of what the agreement means for Taiwan. The Holy See has been a diplomatic ally of the Republic of China (ROC) over the last 76 years — the last of Taipei’s allies in Europe — but any diplomatic agreement reached with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) typically demands the withdrawal of state and non-state actors’ diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

Since the agreement was signed on 22 September, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Andrew Lee commented that ‘Taiwan–Vatican relations are stable’. Despite the agreement with Beijing, the Vatican reportedly continues to stand by Taiwan and has reaffirmed to Taipei that the provisional agreement is ‘not of a political or diplomatic nature’.

Others are sceptical and fear that the agreement signals closer ties between the Holy See and Beijing, which could lead to ‘an acceleration of the gradual diplomatic regression between the Vatican and Taiwan’ and eventually the full diplomatic recognition of the PRC at the expense of the ROC.

Many questions still remain. Will the underground churches accept the provisional agreement or continue to operate unofficially? Can the Vatican truly use the agreement as a first step in pressuring Beijing to extend greater religious freedom to Chinese Catholics? Have there been talks about the Vatican’s future diplomatic recognition of the PRC or the abandonment of its diplomatic ties with the ROC?

Given the opaque operating nature of both the Holy See and Beijing, and the fact that neither side has released all the details of the agreement discussions, ascertaining how this historically troubled relationship will develop is a matter of waiting and seeing.

Gary Sands is Senior Analyst at Wikistrat and Director at Highway West Capital Advisors.

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