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Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen

Vatican-China agreement: Catholics keep the faith in historic deal despite slow progress

  • Beijing and the Holy See signed a landmark agreement concerning the appointment of bishops in China in September 2018
  • Vatican ‘conscious agreement will not solve everything ... [but] provides foundation to resolve key religious conflict’

This is the last in a three-part series examining the role of the Roman Catholic Church in China and how the difficult and complex relationship between the Vatican and Beijing has shifted and evolved since the Communist Party broke diplomatic ties in 1951. This instalment looks at how Catholics continue to be persecuted despite a landmark deal being signed between the Vatican and Beijing in 2018.

If James Su Zhimin is still alive, he would have turned 88 this month. While he has not been seen for 17 years, Su is still listed by the Holy See, the worldwide government of the Catholic Church, as the Bishop of Baoding in China’s Hebei province.

Between 1956 – five years after the Vatican and Beijing broke off diplomatic relations – and 1997, Su was arrested at least eight times, spending more than 30 years in prisons and labour reform facilities for refusing to switch allegiance from the Pope to China’s state-sanctioned Catholic Church.

He was last seen in 2003, when he was in hospital. Since then, no one has had any news about him and the authorities have been silent about his whereabouts and status. Many fear he might already be dead.

Hopes rose that the Chinese government might be more willing to share information about so-called underground bishops like Su when Beijing and the Vatican signed an agreement two years ago to address the decades-old problem of bishop ordination in mainland China.
In June last year, the Vatican publicly asked Beijing to stop pressuring clergy who wanted to remain loyal to the Pope. Photo: AFP

However, it seems the agreement, which will expire in September unless it is extended, has contributed little in the way of rapprochement between the Holy See and Beijing or greater freedom for Catholics in China.

Exact details of the agreement are secret but it essentially attempts to resolve conflicts regarding bishop appointments in mainland China, with the Pope expected to have a veto on candidates. That power, however, has yet to be tested as no new bishops have been chosen since the agreement was signed.

A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a fax response to the South China Morning Post that the agreement was implemented smoothly.

“Both sides will continue to maintain close communication over the implementation of the agreement and negotiate relevant arrangements to push for continuous improvement of ties,” he said.

The Holy See’s press office declined to comment.

In June last year, the Vatican publicly asked Beijing to stop pressuring clergy who wanted to remain loyal to the Pope to say they accepted the principles of independence, autonomy and self-administration of the Chinese Catholic Church.

According to a Catholic source who has knowledge of the 2018 agreement negotiations, Vatican negotiators regularly tabled persecution cases of underground clergy in meetings with their Chinese counterparts.

“For the Vatican, they are conscious that the agreement will not solve everything. It simply provides the foundation to resolve a key religious conflict but many political leaders and critics have viewed the agreement through a political lens,” the person said.

China open to closer relationship with Vatican, Beijing says

The names of several clergy, including Su, Thaddeus Ma Daqin – the bishop of Shanghai who has been under partial house arrest for years – and Augustine Cui Tai – the bishop of Xuanhua in Hebei province, who was arrested last month – have been raised.

“Their names were brought up every time but it was always met with excuses, such as the local authorities were not collaborating,” the source said.

“There are a lot of lies and [the Vatican] is aware of it. China has such advanced technology to track and trace its citizens, how can you not know the whereabouts of a man who has been missing for nearly 20 years,” the person said, in reference to Su.

When the Vatican and Beijing broke diplomatic ties in 1951, Communism was seen as the “enemy of faith” by Rome, and the Catholic Church was kicked out of China. In its place, Beijing set up its own autonomous Catholic body – independent of the Holy See.

For decades, bishops who were ordained by the Pope would lose communion if they joined the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which appointed bishops without papal approval. On the other hand, bishops who chose to remain loyal to the Pope were often harassed, pressured or even jailed.

At the same time, religious practitioners in China also pointed to a tightening of freedom in recent years as the authorities implemented a “sinicisation” policy on religions, emphasising loyalty to the state and the Communist Party. They lamented that the policy was being applied across the board, affecting religions from Catholicism and Protestantism to Islam.

Under the restrictive policy, religious icons, symbols such as crosses and holy buildings like churches, mosques and Buddhist monasteries were dismantled. Draconian policies to disrupt Islamic religious practices in Xinjiang and suppress support for the Dalai Lama in Tibet have continued.

People under 18 have been barred from entering religious venues, and the sale of religious publications including academic research has been subject to close scrutiny since 2018.

Such high pressure tactics explain why many Catholics have continued to refuse to join the state-sanctioned church in spite of a thaw of ties between the Vatican and Beijing in recent years.

A leading government think tank researcher on Christianity told the Post that China’s repressive religious policies had hurt its international image and contributed to domestic instability.

“This is rooted in an outdated Marxist outlook that sees religion as a backward and reactionary idealism, and crackdown and containment are the only response,” said the person, who is a Communist Party member and asked not to be named.

“Religions and religious believers are products of an evolving society. Completely denying the value of religion today is no different to completely denying the value of our own society. This is pure self-sabotage,” the person said.

The researcher faulted the Chinese authorities for overlooking the complexity of religion in China and treating believers as “opposing forces”.

“But persecution will only lead to faster growth of unauthorised religious groups, especially among Christians,” the person said. “I have never been more worried about our religious policy than now after decades of studying it.”

Pope Francis has faced criticism for his non-confrontational approach towards China and failing to lobby an effective defence over the interests of the underground clergy.

The person with knowledge of the China-Vatican agreement negotiations said there was little the Vatican could do at this point.

“But the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has made a tremendous mistake by declaring war against religion. When you attack religion, you are only going to create unsatisfied citizens and this threatens your domestic stability.

“I’m not just talking about Catholics here, but all the other religions,” the person said.

However, people should remember to look at the bigger picture rather than just focus on persecution, the person said, citing the example of the Wenzhou diocese that held more than 3,000 baptisms last year under the leadership of underground bishop Shao Zhumin, who remains a frequent target for local authorities.

“We can’t just focus on persecution or else we would miss out on the bigger picture. It’s not the time to walk away even though it seems nothing can be changed,” the person said.

“The church must keep lighting the candle of hope, trusting only God can bring forth the change. If we lose hope, we will lose everything”.

Read part one of this series, which investigates the agreement signed two years ago and asks if there is any potential for common ground between Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping, and part two, on the role Taiwan plays in the relationship.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Feeling the chill