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Could the Vatican-China deal undermine the Church’s credibility?


Last Sunday marked the first anniversary of the “provisional agreement” between China and the Holy See. It was the result of decades of diplomatic efforts, beginning during the pontificate of John Paul II. The deal may come to be regarded as one of the most significant events of 21st-century Church history.

What is striking, one year on, is just how little we still know about the pact. When the Vatican announced the breakthrough last September it provided few details. It certainly did not reveal the text of the deal. Despite the best efforts of journalists over the past 12 months, the document remains secret. We can only speculate on the reasons for this. Perhaps one or both sides conceded more than they wish to acknowledge publicly. But we do not know.

When the deal was unveiled, it was widely assumed that it mainly concerned the appointment of bishops. China and the Holy See had, it appeared, finally agreed on a mechanism for filling China’s many vacant sees. Yet for months after the announcement there was no news of episcopal appointments. Finally, in late August, the Vatican reported that two bishops had been installed in Chinese dioceses. They were, a Vatican spokesman said, “the first to take place in the framework of the provisional agreement”. And yet to this day neither the Vatican nor China has revealed precisely what this “framework” consists of.

The closest we have come to discovering the content of the deal was in June, when the Vatican issued a new set of guidelines for Chinese clergy. The document addressed a problem that priests had struggled with ever since last September: did the Vatican now require clerics belonging to the “underground” Church to join the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA)? The Vatican explained that clergy were no longer forbidden to join the CPCA, an organisation long regarded as illegitimate. Indeed, it seemed to say, most priests and bishops might be expected to ally with it. Yet those who decided, in conscience, that they could not join a group controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) should be “respected”. In cases where clergy were pressurised to sign statements that appeared to deny papal authority, the Vatican advised that they should make clear their dissent in either a written or oral statement.

Needless to say, the Chinese authorities have not treated underground clergy with respect in the past year. Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that they have used the agreement to try to force them to join the CPCA. Those who refuse face arrest.

And here we come to something else we don’t know: how many conscientious objectors there are among China’s clergy. It is currently impossible to estimate how many of those who had previously refused to join the CPCA have done so in the past year. Perhaps not even the Vatican knows this.

How has the agreement affected the Catholic Church’s standing in China? Clearly, relations between the Holy See and Beijing are the best they have been since Mao Zedong seized power 70 years ago this October. But there are still tensions. It is notable that the agreement remains “provisional” and there are still no official diplomatic relations between the two states.

But what if the agreement, instead of enhancing the Chinese Church’s credibility has, in fact, undermined it? That is the question raised by the eminent Italian sociologist Massimo Introvigne. Writing on the website Bitter Winter, he notes that Catholic numbers in China are stagnant, while independent Protestant churches are booming. (There are an estimated 10 million Catholics in China, compared with 40 million Protestants.) “The risk in China,” Introvigne writes, “is that a Catholic Church perceived as pro-CCP will find its Holy Grail of (limited) religious liberty for the Catholics, only to discover that the Grail is empty and that a Church friendly to an atheistic regime is simply not interesting for the majority of the Chinese [who are] seeking in a religious faith what the party-state cannot deliver.”

The counter-argument is that the provisional agreement is removing the Church’s greatest liability: that it has been divided into state-approved and underground factions. If communism finally falls, the Church will be united and free to carry out its mission.

But there is little evidence that the CCP is on the verge of collapse, so this view appears naïve. While it is too soon to draw sweeping conclusions about the agreement, we fear that it has left many Chinese Catholics in a worse place than they were a year ago.