Recent Reports on Sino-Vatican Negotiations Raise Many Complicated Questions

In recent months Catholics in China had anticipated the upcoming February 1 implementation of the government’s new, stricter regulations on religion with a sense of foreboding, viewing them as the regime's attempt to achieve two goals with regard to China's divided Catholic Church: 1) to greatly increase its already strong control over the “official” (government-recognized) church, and 2) to eradicate the activities of the “unofficial” or underground church though fines and prohibiting their gatherings (presumably stopping them by force, whereas they had previously often turned a blind eye), with the goal of eliminating it altogether by forcing it to amalgamate with the official church.

I should note at the outset that virtually everything in China is complicated, and government policies are not uniformly applied and enforced the same way in all circumstances throughout the country.

Understanding these events requires some background which is beyond the scope of this article, but I have provided elsewhere.[1] Simply hearing that an "underground Church" still exists in China naturally raises questions for Catholics in the West: what is it like? are Catholics still being jailed or killed? do they really have to gather to worship in complete secrecy? what is the "government-approved" or "official church" really like? The reality is that circumstances with regard to all these questions can vary greatly from place to place.

To sum up as briefly as possible, in some places in recent years, the underground church, which began in 1957 and was persecuted fiercely from then until Mao Zedong's death in 1976 (as all religions were suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76), has continued to function in secret, required to use great care to avoid discovery by local officials, in closely-watched places like Beijing. In many or most other places, especially rural areas, local officials know who the underground Catholics are, who their leaders are, and knowing they are not troublemakers (rather quite the opposite, good citizens) largely leave them alone, or detain leaders on occasion. Some underground priests and bishops even have respectful relationships with local officials, which helps the underground church.

I once attended mass and spoke with an elderly underground priest whose congregation of several hundred met in an open outdoor space in a secluded Catholic neighborhood, who told me that he had a good relationship with local officials, and they were generally free to worship, and obviously did not have to hide. In another Catholic town, not far away, I attended a large mass in which an official and underground priest concelebrated, and the congregation of around 700 or so people included both communities together. In other places, the two communities are said to be hostile to each other, and may even try to sabotage each other's activities. Thus the most accurate observation is simply that there is no single uniform situation, and much depends on local conditions, such as church leaders having friendly or hostile relations with local officials, which can significantly affect how the church is treated in a particular place. It is also still the case that in some particular circumstances, a bishop or priest may be arrested or detained for political reasons, and even in recent decades a few, like Bishop Joseph Fan Xueyuan have died in custody, most likely tortured, in 1992.[2]

The relative leniency, however, may be coming to an end for more communities under the new regulations. Among these is call, originating from Chinese President Xi Jinping himself, for the “sinicization” of religions, meaning the elimination of foreign influence, which for example aims to make it harder for foreign scholars or clergy to teach in seminaries or to meaningfully participate in the life of parishes, but most of all for the Catholic Church means that the power to appoint bishops is to be held by the government, not the pope. In Xi's words, which repeats the CCP's policy since the early 1980s, the party must “actively guide religions to adapt to the socialist society.”[3] In the past 15 years we have seen an inconsistent pattern of hopeful and disturbing signs: at times the government and the Vatican have agreed on a candidate, easing the concerns of local Catholics who desire above all to know that their bishop is approved by Rome, and at other times the regime has acted in defiance, coercing legitimate bishops into ordaining a new candidate who is not approved (and in some cases explicitly rejected) by the Holy See.

The regime's ultimate policy is that no organization, least of all a religious one, is to be governed by a foreign power, which can lead to insurgent movements and threaten the party's rule. This fear is historically quite valid, as various hidden religious movements have caused instability, and even wars of rebellion, in Chinese history. The history of Christianity in China also includes controversy, conflict and even bloodshed, especially in the 19th century, when missionaries were often protected by western countries that had produced great social havoc (such as widespread opium addiction) among the people, and humiliated China militarily.

Thus to the Chinese government, which insists that its socialist ideology represents the "correct worldview," allowing a church to function legally under the guidance of the Party, free from foreign control, seems like a reasonable or even generous gesture to people it views as decent, although misguided. For the segment of the Catholic population who worship in official churches, being allowed to practice their faith legally, and no longer being required to publicly reject the pope's "spiritual" leadership (as opposed to political or economic), and being allowed to otherwise function normally in society (i.e. go to school, get a job, and enjoy other "normal" privileges that may be denied to underground Catholics), is seen as a workable option.

Reports within the past week (January 22) that a "Vatican prelate" had in recent months asked two legitimate bishops (approved by the Holy See) to step aside and allow two illegitimate, government-approved Bishops (who are not approved by the church) to take over as leaders in their dioceses were received with disappointment and dismay by many, especially those in the underground church. According to reports, Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian, 88, of the Guangdong (south China) city of Shantou, was asked in October to retire and give way to Joseph Huang Bingzhang who was publicly excommunicated in 2011 for being ordained illicitly, disobeying the Holy See's "numerous" instructions not to do so.

Huang has also been firmly resisted by the faithful in the diocese, who were praised at the time in a statement by the Holy See which said, "this resistance . . . is meritorious before God and calls for appreciation on the part of the whole Church."[4] In the second case,  Bishop Joseph Guo Xijin, the ordinary bishop of Mindong who belongs to the underground community, was asked to "downgrade" himself to coadjutor bishop under Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, one of the seven illicit bishops in China who is apparently awaiting Vatican recognition.

These recent actions raise the question, why would the Holy See agree now to reward illicit bishops who have previously been publicly censured? They have caused shock and sadness among both "lay and clerical members of the official and underground Church." One respondent, whose views are echoed by many, said, "Asking Bishop Zhuang to resign is like abandoning a person who is loyal to you; to demote Bishop Guo is incredible news. As a Chinese saying goes: 'Cut the feet to fit the shoes.' It is an inappropriate decision."[5] Another said:

The Pope . . . said that we must be vigilant so that the faith is not colonized by ideology. The Church is the foundation of truth; it is our Mother and Teacher; it must guarantee justice and peace, promote religious freedom, protect human rights, and help people in need. The Church cannot submit to temporal power by marginalizing its people.[6]

These moves seem to be the result of recent negotiations aimed at creating a situation in which the installation of bishops acceptable to the government (and tolerated by the Holy See) will allow for the normalization of relations between the Holy See and China, and remove the need for a resistant, underground church. This is the goal desired by all sides, and it seems that the Holy See is exceptionally eager to reach an agreement with the Chinese regime during the current window of opportunity when the latter has shown an openness to dealing with Pope Francis which did not exist with previous popes. Many Catholics, however, especially in the underground Church, see these actions as the wrong approach, rewarding those who are least worthy of being in leadership.

It is possible that to the negotiating parties the request to the elderly Bishop Zhuang to retire seemed reasonable, and that the request to the younger Bishop Guo to take a subordinate role for the sake of unifying the divided church seemed workable as well. In fact, according to Cardinal Joseph Zen, Archbishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, proposing the resignations alone with a view to resolving the impasse are not the problem. What the Holy See's representative seems to have missed or underestimated (this is that part that is most inexplicable) is that underground Catholics will never trust or follow a bishop who has sought illicit ordination; they are viewed as careerists, opportunists, or even "Judases" who have forfeited their allegiance to Christ and the faith for worldly gain.

According to one Chinese priest, these illicit bishops have not merely accepted an appointment from someone else, but have actively promoted themselves for the position of bishop against the Holy See's instructions. A more acceptable compromise, which has been utilized successfully in recent years but depends on the unpredictable cooperation of the government, is to ordain new candidates who are pre-approved by both sides. This still does not elevate the candidates which the Holy See would most like to have in place, but it at least avoids the scandal of having illicit bishops.

In the past, all Catholics, but especially those in the underground church, have treasured statements of support by various popes as they sacrificially embrace the road of resistance to the hostile regime. Now some feel that they are being ignored, treated as a "thorn in the side" by Rome. Cardinal Zen has for decades sharply criticized the Beijing regime and spoken up on behalf of members of the underground church, even while being deeply involved in getting to know both the official and underground Catholic communities. The recent events moved him to make an unplanned visit to Rome, where he met with Pope Francis, delivering a letter from Bishop Zhuang and conveying the situation and the feelings of the faithful.

According to Zen's report published January 29 on his blog and Facebook page, in which he said he felt duty-bound to clarify the situation, Pope Francis told him that he instructed his collaborators in the Holy See "not to create another Mindszenty case," referring to the Hungarian cardinal Josef Mindszenty, who suffered years of imprisonment by Communist government, was freed by insurgents, left the country under orders by the Holy See, and was replaced by a successor who was favorable to the regime. [7]

If Cardinal Zen's report is accurate, this would indicate, unfortunately, that Pope Francis is either unaware of the actions of his representative in China, or that the two are not in agreement in method. Zen, who acknowledges himself as a pessimist with regard the prospects for an agreement with the regime which will be beneficial for the Church, has sometimes been at odds with other prominent clergy members who have favored continued dialogue and negotiation with the regime. With characteristic bluntness, he makes his position clear: "Can there be anything really 'mutual' with a totalitarian regime? Either you surrender or you accept persecution, but remaining faithful to yourself (can you imagine an agreement between St. Joseph and King Herod?)"[8]

On Tuesday (January 30), the day after Cardinal Zen's message appeared, Greg Burke, Director of the Holy See Press Office, denied Cardinal Zen's implication that Pope Francis and his representatives were not acting with a unified purpose, stating in a brief message,

The Pope is in constant contact with his collaborators, in particular in the Secretariat of State, on Chinese issues, and is informed by them faithfully and in detail on the situation of the Catholic Church in China and on the steps in the dialogue in progress between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, which he follows with special attention. It is therefore surprising and regrettable that the contrary is affirmed by people in the Church, thus fostering confusion and controversy.[9]

While Burke's statement aims to reassure people that no discord exists within the Holy See on China, it still falls short of answering the initial questions about plans to elevate illicit bishops. The requests were most likely made in hopes that they underground bishops would give way quietly, and a smooth and peaceful succession would occur, clearly something which could not happen while illicit bishops are involved.

At this point we can only watch to see how these events unfold in the future. Negotiations of various kinds have been vaguely reported or hinted at for many years, and no clear path or timeline exists. China and the Vatican have not have official diplomatic relations since the PRC's founding in 1949. The mere fact that the CCP seems to desire an agreement with the Church at this point may be seen as a positive step, but at this point it is only willing to reach an agreement on its own terms—that is, which preserves its absolute power over every organized group in Chinese society.

This is why many feel that an agreement acceptable to the Church will never be reached with the current regime; for them to allow the pope to appoint bishops for China would amount to allowing the proverbial camel's nose under the tent, and even if the Catholic Church has no intentions of overthrowing the regime, which the Church has repeatedly stated it does not, the regime would have to deal with dozens of other religious groups that would demand greater freedom, and pose a greater threat.

It is imperative that we watch and pray on behalf of the Church in China. We must continue to hope that a workable agreement can be reached on the appointment of bishops (the situation in Vietnam regarding bishops seems to be a somewhat better model, but similar restrictions on religious freedom exist). Too much compromise with the present regime, one which fails to honor the loyalty and suffering of Catholics who have remained steadfast throughout seven decades of Communist rule, however, will not stand up in the long run.

We should keep in mind that the Communist Party in China will not last forever, and some prominent scholars and analysts believe that the CCP, in spite of (or as indicated by) moves by Xi Jinping to strengthen his power, is in a late phase marked by a desperation indicative of final weakness. Some Catholics respond that by normalizing relations with the present regime, the Holy See would lose "the right to speak to the Church in China."[10] If and when the regime change which many hope for does occur, the Church should be ready to help rebuild a just government from a position of moral authority, by having stood for justice all along, and then Catholics will be better prepared to take on leadership roles in society that will truly promote the common good.

This month, Church Life Journal will be considering the ecclesial nature of the Catholic Imagination. Too often, the “Catholic” imagination is treated as a series of intellectual principles. But the Catholic imagination must also be an ecclesial one, grounded in a Church that is one, holy, apostolic, and Catholic. We’ll hear this month from accounts of the Church throughout the world. In addition, we’ll also read a series of articles (click for a list of articles) about the ecumenical quality to the Church Catholic. 

Featured Image: Bishop Joseph Zen prayed with Catholics before the protest against Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23 legislation, 12 December 2002 by Alfredoko; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

[1] See John Lindblom, "Challenges persist for Church in China," OSV Newsweekly, February 18, 2015, and "China issues new regulations on religions," OSV Newsweekly, October 4, 2017.

[2] "Peter Joseph Fan, 84, a Bishop Imprisoned by China for Beliefs," in The New York Times,

[3] "Chinese Communist Party Vows to 'Sinicize Religions’ in China," in The Diplomat,

[4] "Holy See condemns illegal Bishop of Shantou, appreciates 'resistance' of bishops and faithful," in AsiaNews.It,

[5] "Underground Church as a pawn in China’s political game, a thorn in the side of the Holy See," in AsiaNews.It,,-a-thorn-in-the-side-of-the-Holy-See-42929.html

[6] ibid.

[7] "Card. Zen on the bishops of Shantou and Mindong," in AsiaNews.It,

[8] Ibid.

[9] "BREAKING: Greg Burke Denies Allegations by Cardinal Zen About Pope & Vatican’s Treatment of China," in Zenit,

[10] "Underground Church as a pawn in China’s political game, a thorn in the side of the Holy See," op. cit.


John Lindblom

John Lindblom studies in the World Religions and World Church doctoral program at the University of Notre Dame. He received his MA in International Studies at the Henry M. Jackson School at the University of Washington, and has worked as a teacher, researcher, freelance writer, translator and consumer of spicy food in China since 1997.

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