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Religion in China

As China and the Vatican make peace, will a reconciliation between official and underground churches follow?

Christine Loh says the agreement on the appointment of Catholic bishops satisfies both church and state, but unifying the official and underground church will be more challenging

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2018, 1:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2018, 7:02pm

The Vatican and Beijing broke ties in 1951, for Marxist-Leninists should be atheists. But after some 40 years of discussions, a breakthrough about the appointment of bishops to represent the church in mainland China has been reached. A formal agreement is expected to be concluded soon.

There are understandable rumblings of discontent among Catholics that it would be wrong for Beijing to have any say in religious matters, that there should be a clear separation of church and state. In Hong Kong, our faith is a private matter and the government has no say. Here, Rome appoints Catholic bishops and that is as it should be.

On the mainland, the ruling party superintends the foundations of power, including in religious affairs. Beijing’s concern has been that there should be no alternative source that can influence the people, which it sees as a potential risk to political and social stability. The tussle between the Vatican and Beijing has to be seen against this background.

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In the earlier days of communist rule, the party closed churches, locked up priests and repressed believers. More recently, the government has allowed state-sanctioned churches and appointed bishops. The estimated number of Catholics on the mainland is about 10 million today.

The issue is whether it is better to have an agreement with Beijing and whether the terms are good enough to meet the interests of the church. The crux of the agreement is understood to have two key aspects: the government would nominate bishops but Rome’s approval of the candidates would be necessary before consecration can take place.

In releasing the news that the Vatican and Beijing had reached an initial consensus on the appointment of bishops in 2017, Hong Kong’s cardinal John Tong Hon stressed two points. First, there would no longer be “the crisis of a division between the open and underground” Catholic churches in China, and the officially approved and underground churches could gradually be reconciled. Second, Tong stressed that the Vatican and Beijing have “different interests”. Beijing is concerned with “problems on the political level”, while the Vatican is concerned with faith and pastoral work. Their interests had to be addressed to the satisfaction of both before any agreement could be reached.

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For the Vatican, consecration must have papal approval or it would be regarded as breaking away from the church. An agreement where the government has a nominating role but Rome’s approval is necessary would mean that the consecrated bishops would not only have Beijing’s recognition but they would also be in communion with Rome. For the Vatican, candidates for bishop must preach according to the Catholic faith. The process of nomination satisfies Beijing that it has political control while Rome’s approval satisfies the church that it can do God’s work.

This is a considerable diplomatic achievement, although critics see Rome as having capitulated to Beijing, even though Beijing has had to concede, too, to a degree.

The different goals of the two sides will not be easy to resolve. Those who practise their faith underground may see the patriotic church as betrayers of the faith, and it won’t be easy to persuade them persecution will stop. Some argue that Rome is naive to trust Beijing. Some are hopeful that the “patriotic” and “underground” church communities could become one over time, others believe it’s wishful thinking. Things can only work out if the arrangements are implemented reasonably on the Chinese side.

The Vatican knows China is good for business

This agreement between the Vatican and Beijing should be regarded as just the first phase. Rome will have to negotiate for more. For the church to truly do its work, it will need greater official tolerance for the daily religious life of Catholics. It has to be able to teach the faith to children and to conduct activities in society.

Christine Loh is chief development strategist and adjunct professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Division of Environment and Sustainability