China and the Catholic Church are approaching a historic agreement to normalize relations between the two states, mending a rift that began with the communists coming to power in 1949.
Relations between the PRC and the Vatican official broke off in 1951. Since that time, Catholicism has operated both above ground and underground in China. As the Communist Party sought to control all religions in the country, it created its own state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, one that does not acknowledge the authority of the Pope, but rather hold its reverence toward the state. For generations, however, an underground church has operated in secret, claiming spiritual allegiance to one God and to his representative on earth, the Pope.
Over the years, these underground Catholic churches have been raided and persecuted from time to time. To add to the mess, both the Catholic Church in Rome and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association have ordained their own bishops. Some bishops are only recognized by the state, and others are solely recognized by Rome. There are also a large number that are recognized by both China and the Vatican.
The current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has made extensive efforts to regain his Chinese flock, and it seems the Roman Catholic Church is making progress.
Beijing and the Vatican have come to a consensus, according to Cardinal John Tong Hon, head of the church in Hong Kong, and recognized by Rome. Writing in the Sunday Examiner, Cardinal Tong said:
The core problem to be resolved is the appointment of bishops… According to Catholic doctrine, the pope remains the last and highest authority in appointing a bishop.
If the pope has the final word about the worthiness and suitability of an episcopal candidate, the elections of local Churches and the recommendations of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China will simply be a way to express recommendations.
For China, their main concern in the modern era is preserving the paramount importance of patriotism and loyalty toward the state.
China has had a significant history of Christian rebellions. In 1851, during the Qing dynasty, a Christian sub-empire was established within the borders of the middle Kingdom, when Hong Xiuquan declared himself the Heavenly King and established the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace, sparking a civil war known as the Taiping Rebellion. By 1854, the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace occupied lands stretching from Guangxi to Shanghai. Though the rebellion was largely suppressed by 1864, the events significantly weakened the Qing imperial rulers, which would later lead to its fall.
The new consensus is significant as it has been the main roadblock between the Vatican and China. Under the agreement, the Pope will have the final right of say as to who is ordained as a bishop on the mainland, but China will have input and recommendations.
However, other than these matters, there are still a number of issues that still needs to be ironed out. Specifically, 37 issues: there are 30 bishops ordained by China who are not recognized by Rome, and seven self-appointed bishops who are recognized by neither China nor Rome.
Beijing is concerned with political unrest and stability, whereas the Vatican is concerned with its own canonic laws and regulations, which define the Catholic Church. Both will benefit from the agreement: China will gain one step higher as far as international respect as they demonstrate tolerance for religious freedom, as well as settling civil unrest among members of the underground church, while Rome will once again be in communion with the millions of Chinese Catholics.