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A China-Vatican reset

Understanding the proposed deal between the pope and Beijing

A China-Vatican reset

Chinese Catholic worshippers wait to take communion at a Palm Sunday Mass during the Easter Holy Week at an underground church near Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Perhaps you’ve heard the news that the Vatican and the Chinese government are on the verge of signing an agreement on appointing bishops, a deal that could re-establish relations between China and the Roman Catholic Church. Though not yet official, the deal is part of ongoing negotiations that have lasted for years. Today’s China Snapshot gives a brief explainer. (See also “In Caesar’s shadow,” Nov. 26, 2016.)


Under Chairman Mao Zedong, China cut off relations with the Vatican in 1951 and created the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which renounced the authority of the pope. Two churches sprang up: the official CPCA church, and the persecuted underground church that remained loyal to the pope. Today there are 9 million to 12 million Catholics in China, half of them in CPCA churches and half in underground churches.

Why does the Vatican want to restore its relationship with China?

The Vatican hopes that by reaching a deal with the Chinese government, it can heal the rift between the official and underground Catholic churches in China, as well as the rift between the pope and the Chinese Catholic church. Former Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong Hon said the goal was to “protect the rightful religious freedom and rights of the Catholic Church in China that are written in the Chinese Constitution.”

What’s kept the two sides from reaching agreement?

The sticking points are what to do with seven illegitimate Chinese bishops (originally there were eight, but one died last year) and how to choose future bishops: Should the authority to make appointments belong to the Vatican or the CPCA? The illegitimate bishops were chosen by the CPCA without approval of the Vatican, and some have children or girlfriends. Two lead dioceses that also have Vatican-approved underground bishops.

What is the compromise?

Pope Francis would recognize the seven illegitimate bishops. In exchange, the CPCA would allow the pope veto power over bishop candidates chosen by the CPCA. The Vatican asked two of its approved bishops, Bishop Guo Xijin of Mindong and Bishop Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou, to step down in order to make way for the illegitimate bishops. Bishop Guo told his followers that he would indeed step down if the pope orders him to. But he told The New York Times he believes the Chinese authorities are unwilling to give the Vatican a final say over the Catholic churches in China.

What do critics of the deal say?

The loudest critic is former Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, who told The Wall Street Journal the Vatican is betraying the underground Catholic church by “putting wolves before your flock, and they are going to make a massacre.” In his experience working with the CPCA, he’s found that the Chinese government typically does not keep its end of the bargain and is unlikely to cede any meaningful authority to the Vatican. 

A group of Catholics, mainly from Hong Kong, wrote an open letter opposing the deal because China has not shown that it plans to stop religious persecution. Rather, China’s new religious regulations allow for greater scrutiny of Catholic churches. The letter also claims that if the seven illicitly ordained bishops are legitimized, “the faithful in Greater China would be plunged into confusion and pain, and a schism would be created in the Church in China.”

What do other Chinese Catholics think?

In the Mindong region in Southeast China, some Catholics told the Times they felt powerless about decisions made by higher-ups: “We believers just go to church and pray.” Their more pressing concerns involve how to retain church members. Catholicism is more prevalent in rural areas, and many young people are moving to the cities and losing their faith. 

In response to the news of Vatican-approved bishops potentially stepping down for illegitimate ones, one Chinese Catholic told AsiaNews: “When I read the news, I was shocked and quite saddened. … There is no guarantee that by sacrificing the underground Church we can maintain the Catholic Church and guarantee the purity of the faith in China.”