With a historic pact, the Vatican continues its battle with Beijing for Chinese hearts and minds
Cary Huang says Christianity has seen a stunning growth in China in the past few decades. The Vatican may hope to see more Catholics in the country, while Beijing seeks to keep the state-run and underground churches under control
A recent agreement between Beijing and the Vatican on the ordination of bishops may mark an end to decades of estrangement between the communist leadership and the Catholic Church. Although the development does not suggest any relaxation of control over the faith or commitment to religious freedom in the world’s last major communist-ruled nation, both sides stand to gain from the historic deal.
For Beijing, the agreement is a remarkable coup against Taipei and could pave the way for the Vatican to switch diplomatic recognition. The Vatican City is the only country in Europe with official ties with Taiwan, and a diplomatic shift might trigger a domino effect on the handful of Catholic-dominant Latin American nations that maintain relations with the self-ruled island.
China has stepped up efforts to restrict Taiwan’s international space after independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen came to office in May 2016. The island has since lost five diplomatic allies and now has formal ties with only 17 small nations.
The major achievement of the September 22 deal is that it facilitates a process of dialogue to name new bishops, and also regularises the status of seven bishops who were appointed by Beijing and had been excommunicated by the Vatican. Effectively, the Vatican now leads both the state-run and the underground Catholic churches in China.
The country has an estimated 12 million Catholics, who are split between the government’s Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the underground church loyal to the Holy See. For decades, underground priests and parishioners have been harassed, detained and prosecuted. It is hoped that the deal will result in the government’s recognition of underground churches.
The Vatican may also be anticipating a religious gold rush in China, as Christianity has seen stunning growth in the country in the past few decades. By one estimate, China’s Christian population has swelled from a few million in the early 1980s to 100 million this year – in comparison, the Communist Party has 90 million members. The Vatican may be hoping there will one day be more Catholics in China than anywhere else in the world.
While the agreement addresses an important aspect of church governance in China, it does not spell out the relations between the Vatican and the patriotic church. In a statement, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association said it welcomed the accord, but pledged its continued support for the communist leadership and socialist system. The group has vowed to run its cathedrals “independently” and to uphold the “sinicisation” of Catholicism.
For a long time, the Vatican has been trying to navigate China’s complex political landscape and establish official contact with the country’s Catholic community.
However, the communist leadership has long seen any religion as a threat to the authoritarian system. The different religions represent different value systems and different sources of authority, posing challenges to the party’s monopoly on thought, ideology and belief.
Thus, even localised or home-grown religions, such as Buddhism and Daoism, have been subject to political oppression. As far as Beijing is concerned, merging the state-run and underground Catholic churches might help it control the entire congregation.
Since coming to office, Communist Party chief Xi Jinping has promoted the party’s absolute leadership and placed more restrictions on all religious activity and other means of political activism.
Thus, the rapprochement between Beijing and the Vatican may translate into an increasing rivalry to win the Chinese people’s hearts and minds. There may be a clash between the Holy See and the atheist communist government – and between the Pope and Xi himself, who has not only cultivated a godlike image but also had his political theory enshrined in the Chinese constitution.
Cary Huang, a senior writer with the Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s