Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Door is ajar for mainland Chinese Catholics to openly practise their faith

Tentative agreement between Beijing and the Vatican on appointing bishops is pragmatic and could free millions who now worship in underground churches

Taiwan may remain the key stumbling block to a full diplomatic relationship between the Vatican and Beijing. But this doesn’t mean the two states cannot reach an understanding that will make life much easier for Roman Catholics living in mainland China.

With the arch-conservative Pope Benedict and the fanatical anti-communist Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun out of the picture, things are looking up. In a lengthy article published in the Hong Kong diocese’s Kung Kao Po, Cardinal John Tong Hon, a moderate like his current boss in the Vatican, explains how the two sides are close to resolving a long-standing conflict over the selection of bishops on the mainland.

The mainland has about six million Catholics on official record, but some estimates put the total number at over 12 million, as many belong to underground churches that are not sanctioned by the central government and which look to Rome as the ultimate authority.

This has led to periodic persecution. Since President Xi Jinping (習近平) came to power, suppression of underground churches including the toppling of crosses has intensified. More lay members are being driven underground; some have become more fanatical in their faith.

The preliminary agreement as outlined by Cardinal Tong would be a step closer to giving them official recognition.

Modelled on a similar pact previously reached between Vietnam and the Vatican, the pope would choose from a list of candidates recommended by a conference comprising bishops from the official and clandestine churches.

The Vatican could claim the power of final decision still rests with the pope, while Beijing may insist on screening eligible candidates.

But if this goes ahead, Beijing would have to officially recognise many if not most of those underground churches whose loyalty lies with Rome. This is a big concession on China’s part.

Of course, much delicate work remains even if this works out. What if the conference under Beijing’s control presents a list of bishops unacceptable to the Vatican? Clearly, good faith on both sides would have to prevail for this to work.

Some mainland Christians are already calling this the Vatican’s betrayal. Christians, of course, invented the persecution complex; some may prefer to stay underground as their cross to bear.

But for those who can see the big picture, such an agreement would mean millions of Catholics could practise their faith openly and freely.