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Between Xi Jinping And Pope Francis, China's Catholics Are Still Stuck In Limbo

An agreement between the Vatican and Beijing was quietly renewed recently. However, China still views Catholicism with a mix of deep suspicion and general distraction. Meanwhile the faithful and pastors are caught between two very different worlds.

Chinese catholic priests celebrating mass

December 2021, Hong Kong, China: the Bishop of Hong Kong performs the eucharistic prayer.

Alex Chan Tsz Yuk, SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire
Jieyi Zheng

At a mass on the Assumption of Mary, the Italian priest broke the bread and gave half of it to Liu, an underground priest from China. This simple and solemn rite symbolizes communion with Jesus and the unity of the Catholic Church. But it was only when Liu left his country that he could undertake the rite with a foreign priest, who was also not allowed to preach in China.

The atheist Chinese Communist Party considers religion to be a spiritual opium, and accuses Catholicism in particular of being an accomplice of Western imperialism. The Beijing-backed Catholic Patriotic Association began electing and consecrating its own bishops since 1958, attempting to satisfy the desire of the faithful while severing the link between Chinese Catholics and the Pope.

In order to resolve the plight of Chinese Catholics, after the efforts of three popes, the Vatican and Beijing signed a two-year Provisional Agreement on Nomination of Bishops in 2018. On Oct. 22, when the world’s eyes were focused on Xi Jinping’s groundbreaking third term as president, which is also the expiry date of the previous agreement, the Vatican immediately announced the renewal of the agreement for another two years.


Beijing only briefly confirmed the renewal two days after. The time lag and the lack of official discourse suggest that the agreement, which the Vatican values highly, is a secondary matter for Beijing. The Vatican's eagerness to announce the renewal of the agreement casts a shadow of appeasement of the dictator, as it coincided with former Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Jintao being pulled away from his seat, with a "crowned" Xi Jinping as the new emperor.

Renewed agreement on coronation day

"The timing of the renewal is an unfortunate coincidence, but it's hard to think of any way the Holy See could have not renewed the agreement," said Michel Chambon, an academic who studies Christianity in China.

Chambon understands the Vatican's plight, but admits that "even supporters of the agreement are wondering what other levers the Holy See could manipulate in its negotiations with Beijing?"

The content of the agreement remain secret, but the title of the agreement alone, "Episcopal appointments", suggests that the four years of the agreement have been lackluster, with only six bishops appointed and no new bishops appointed since September 2021.

The underground community loyal to Rome has also suffered, with six underground bishops officially recognized and the future of more than 20 still uncertain. The dual consent process between the Holy See and Beijing has prevented the recurrence of illegitimate bishops, but the road to promoting reconciliation remains rocky.

Dancing the tango

Pope Francis, sitting on a chair and looking upset.

September 2018, Pope Francis during his weekly General Audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.

Evandro Inetti via ZUMA Wire


Since taking office in 2013, Pope Francis has been in touch with Beijing through cultural exchanges and diplomacy, sending several telegrams of greetings to Xi Jinping when his papal plane pass through Chinese airspace. Pope Francis also invites Chinese bishops to visit the Vatican, endeavoring in every way to maintain dialogues with Beijing.

As a tango lover, Pope Francis once described the beauty of dancing the tango as having to guide his partner and be guided. However, his dance partner, Beijing, is clumsy and even ignores the presence of the other party.

After Wuhan became the target of the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020, the Vatican sent a helping hand by facilitating a meeting between the Holy See's Foreign Minister Paul Gallagher and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi around the Munich Security Conference in Germany. This is the highest level meeting of officials from both sides. While the West learned to live with the virus thanks to vaccines, China has until recently remained committed to its Zero COVID policy, so the epidemic prevention policy blocked diplomatic exchanges, making dialogue between the Vatican and China difficult.

Three years after the COVID-19 epidemic, Sino-Vatican relations have cooled, with the Communist Party repeatedly refusing face-to-face talks on the grounds of epidemic control. Although contact has been maintained, meetings in Beijing and Rome, which had alternated every few months, have been suspended.

In late August, the Holy See suddenly received an invitation from China, as the Chinese Communist Party was preparing for the 20th National Congress, which they interpreted as a sign that the Chinese Communist Party had room to manage its relations with the Holy See.

A meeting in China

The Holy See delegation arrived in August, but only stopped in Tianjin for talks with the Chinese Communist Party representatives, unlike the usual meetings with Chinese bishops in Beijing. But the 92-year-old underground bishop of Tianjin, Shi Hongzhen, was met by the delegation, signalling that the Holy See never abandons the underground church.

In addition to the renewal of the agreement, the Holy See asked the Chinese Communist Party for official recognition of the underground bishops, redefinition of the diocese, and raised concerns about the prosecution of Cardinal Emeritus Joseph Zen in Hong Kong.

However, the agreement was renewed intact for another two years. A source in the Holy See familiar with the Sino-Vatican negotiations said that the Vatican wanted the agreement to be more solid and to be made permanent.

Putting aside diplomatic issues

The Vatican received the invitation at a time when the Taiwan Strait was in a frenzy, as U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was visiting Taiwan. Based on past experience, the Holy See speculated that Beijing would propose establishing diplomatic relations to combat Taiwan, but China did not touch on any diplomatic topics during the meeting.

Agostino Giovagnoli, a professor close to the Holy See, explained that after the resumption of dialogues between the two countries in 2013, both sides agreed to put aside diplomatic issues and focus on ecclesiastical matters. Perhaps Beijing understood that if it made a request to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the Holy See might ask Beijing to resolve issues such as underground bishops and diocesan demarcation.

Father Liu, who has been dealing with the Chinese Communist Party in his diocese for years, explained that Xi might seek to claim Taiwan to be his history-making political achievements. “If he has determined to unify Taiwan, then it is not significant whether or not to establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican.”

The silent church

"The Holy See chooses to talk to the most meddlesome people, which is far more difficult than talking to reasonable people," says Gianni Criveller, who has been preaching in Hong Kong for more than 20 years. “Pope Francis hoped that sincerity and magnanimity would convince his interlocutors, but unfortunately, after the agreement was signed, the Vatican has been virtually silent about China's persecution of human rights."

The Vatican is now in a difficult position, and if the agreement is not renewed, Beijing may retaliate by persecuting Chinese Catholics, or by reverting to its old ways of appointing illegal bishops, further dividing the Church. But Criveller notes, “The Vatican could not just remain silent over Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and when China is bullying Taiwan.”

In his 2020 book, Pope Francis singled out the persecution by the Chinese state of the Muslim minority Uyghurs, which Beijing quickly refuted as an unfounded claim. Criveller fears that the Vatican's dialogue strategy could be reduced to a tool for Beijing to cover up its own human rights abuses. For more than 2,000 years, the Catholic Church has had countless experiences of dealing with tyrants and dictators, and when Eastern Europe fell under the Iron Curtain of communism, the Vatican was criticized for remaining too silent.

Some opponents of the agreement have criticized Pope Francis for selling out the Chinese Church and betraying the underground faithful. But Father Liu still supports Francis, even though he thinks the agreement is a weight for the Chinese faithful.

“Pope Francis is a man of action, which requires more courage. Someone always has to start (negotiating with the communists), and it's already tricky when we run a small parish, let alone something as big as a (national) agreement.”

From optimism to discontent at the Vatican

Beijing, December 2022. Xi Jinping addresses a memorial meeting.

Pang Xinglei / Xinhua via ZUMA Press


When the agreement was signed in 2018, the Vatican remained optimistic, with Pope Francis calling on the faithful and the Chinese government to "overcome their mutual hostility" and exhorting the faithful to have a strong faith in God.

Papal diplomats who have dealt with Beijing over the years have increasingly wondered "are the Chinese to be trusted?" Before the 2018 agreement was signed, a senior member of the Holy See involved in the negotiations said that a bad agreement was better than no agreement at all.

Chinese Catholics make up less than one percent of the country's population, are nowhere near as strong as the Cold War-era Polish Catholic Church, and are more divided than the Vietnamese Church.

The once thriving religious revival has been stifled by Xi Jinping's personality cult of worship and the party's religious-like demands for absolute obedience. But most Chinese priests and experts agree that, at a time when all religions are being oppressed, links with the outside world have sometimes given Chinese Catholics more space.

A decade ago, Xi Jinping interfered directly in the appointment of local bishops. In June 2011, a consecration of a new bishop in Wuhan was planned without the Vatican's permission. It was halted when the Holy See sent word to Xi, then vice-president, who happened to be on a trip to Italy. Since taking power, Xi has pushed for the “Chinese-ization” of religion, tearing down crosses and restricting minors from entering churches, but he has never crossed the red line of appointing an illegal bishop on his own.

In the face of stubborn Beijing, the Vatican has been polite in expressing its disappointment. Pope Francis admitted last year that dealing with China is not easy and that "in dialogue one can be deceived, one can make mistakes, but I am convinced that dialogue must not be abandoned.”

Underground groups

Before the agreement was signed, underground groups made up the majority of Chinese Catholics. Father Liu was also an underground priest, but the tightening grip on religious control after Xi Jinping took office forced him to finally register with the government. “Otherwise, nothing could be done."

After the signing of the treatment, he was as disappointed as many clergy. "Like an abandoned orphan, a faithful child who had not bowed to the Patriotic Association for years."

According to Father Liu’s observations, 60 to 70% of Chinese clergy believe that the agreement has so far been a failure, but as a devout Catholic, he chooses to trust in the wisdom of the Pope and the judgement of the Holy See. “At least with the agreement, the confrontation between the Holy See and Beijing is not as intense as before and further divisions in the Church are avoided."


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