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China-Vatican Relations in the Xi Era

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China-Vatican Relations in the Xi Era

Nearly four years after reaching a provisional arrangement, are the two sides moving closer to a formal agreement on bishop appointments?

China-Vatican Relations in the Xi Era

In this April 18, 2018 file photo, Pope Francis meets a group of faithful from China at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican.

Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, file

As a theocracy governed by the Holy See, Vatican City is supposed to administer Catholic affairs all over the world. The authority claimed by the Roman Curia, especially the right to appoint bishops, inevitably conflicts with other states’ sovereignty, per se the supreme power of internal jurisdiction. Secular regimes advocate the principle of “separation of church and state” to solve the conflict – that is, the state allows the Pope to exercise the power of managing Catholic affairs stipulated by the Canon Law, while he does not interfere in secular affairs.

But in the case of communist party-states like China, the Vatican’s authority is more contested – with inevitable impacts on the formal diplomatic relationship. Currently, the People’s Republic of China and the Vatican do not share diplomatic relations; the Holy See instead recognizes the Republic of China government on Taiwan.

The Party Commands Religion

Beijing elects and appoints its own bishops through its Bishops Conference of Catholic Church in China (BCCCC), an autonomous ecclesiastic organization. There is another Catholic organization, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which aims to show that the Chinese Catholic Church exercises independence and has severed its political and economic ties with Vatican. The two organizations used to be at the mercy of a state organ, the former State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), which was incorporated into the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFD) in China’s 2018 institutional reform. Now, Catholicism in China is directly under the jurisdiction of the CCP, namely Xi Jinping.

There is no doubt that Xi has been enhancing the CCP’s predominant role in every perspective, including religion, since 2012, alleging that “the Party exercises overall leadership over all areas of endeavor in every part of the country.” Consequently, foreign religions like Catholicism have been repeatedly required by Xi to undergo Sinicization, i.e., combining the doctrines with Chinese cultural essence, adapting themselves to the Chinese context, and most importantly, preventing religion from being used as a conduit for foreign intervention. By asserting the Sinicization of religion and attaching the issue to national security, religious groups, including China’s Catholics, are encountering more and more obstacles since the CCP’s 19th Congress.

In this sense, one might guess that Sino-Vatican relations would further deteriorate under Xi, given that the CCP has tightened its control over religions. But in reality, the interaction between China and Vatican has dramatically increased, marked by the signature of a two-year provisional agreement on bishop appointment in 2018. The deal was renewed for another two years in 2020 and is now set to expire this October. Will the two sides be able to reach a formal, permanent deal before then?

Pope Francis’ China Approach

Probably because Pope Francis coincidentally took office on March 13, 2013 – just a day before Xi assumed the mantle of the presidency – China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) sent longer congratulations to Pope Francis. Widely regarded as an advocate of “liberation theology” in Latin America that sympathizes with Marxism, Pope Francis makes no secret of his goodwill to improve China-Vatican relations compared with his predecessors: He prayed for China after the two earthquakes in 2014. He also became the first pope to fly over China’s airspace during his visit to South Korea and the Philippines. Accordingly, Pope Francis sent a telegram of greetings to Xi and Chinese people, expressing his willingness to “visit China at any time.”

Catching the Pope’s olive branch, MOFA has played a proactive role in the China-Vatican rapprochement. Deputy Foreign Minister Wang Chao signed the aforementioned agreement on bishop appointments with his counterpart in 2018. At the first high-level meeting since China severed diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi commented that “Pope Francis publicly expressed his love and blessings for China on many occasions” to his counterpart in January 2020. In October 2020, a MOFA spokesman confirmed the agreement’s renewal for another two years.

China can look to other communist countries’ their dealings with Vatican for inspiration. In Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba, party members are allowed to retain their religious conversion. In fact, the China-Vatican agreement was inspired by the “Vietnam model.” In this model, the Pope selects the bishops and notifies the Vietnamese government several days before the formal appointment. The framework has worked, even though some of the candidates educated in the West are not “ideal candidates” to the Vietnamese Communist Party. Cuba, meanwhile, is known as the communist country most willing to guarantee religious freedom, a status that saw the island serve as a “neutral” place for the meeting between Pope Francis and the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill in 2016.

From the perspective of Beijing’s diplomats, reconciliation with the Vatican not only helps China further expand its prominence in international affairs (echoing Xi’s manta of “major country diplomacy”) but also could be an ideal soft power display to ameliorate its notorious image overseas, caused by Chinese diplomats’ “wolf warrior diplomacy” – oral coercion and denunciation of any criticism about China. Further efforts at image mitigation are expected following Xi’s U-turn call to seek a “lovable” image of China in May 2021, faced with an increasingly solitary Beijing since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, as one of the 14 remaining diplomatic allies of Taiwan, the Vatican has become Taiwan’s last outpost in Europe. That fact is especially notable amid China’s increased efforts to pick off Taiwan’s diplomatic partners – since 2016, Taiwan has lost eight diplomatic allies, most recently Nicaragua in 2021. Although the Vatican assured Taipei that the agreement with Beijing is “purely religious” and has nothing to do with diplomacy, China would definitely see rapprochement as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remove Taiwan’s most significant ally. If one day Vatican says goodbye to Taiwan, a chain effect could be anticipated: Countries featuring significant Catholic populations – namely Paraguay, Saint Lucia, Haiti, Palau, Guatemala, and Honduras – might make the same decision.

Opposition Within China

While MOFA sees great benefits in the agreement, the CCP’s UFD has sufficient reasons to resist the Vatican’s requirement for the Pope to approve bishop ordinations. The Vatican unavoidably poses a threat to UFD’s authority on religion. In 2010, when SARA still existed, it mobilized the police to force bishops to attend the assembly of Chinese Catholics, aiming to show its independence from the Vatican in 2010. Many of the bishops had obeyed the Vatican’s order to boycott the joint congress of CPCA and BCCCC. Moreover, UFD embarrassed MOFA by requiring Lei Shiyin – a China-appointed bishop excommunicated by the Vatican due to his “illicit” ordination – to attend the ceremony of two colleagues who received recognition both from Beijing and Vatican, even when MOFA was celebrating negotiations between China and the Vatican in 2016. The schism between UFD and MOFA was revealed again in 2018 when UFD launched a repressive campaign against Catholics, such as dismantling crosses, demolishing churches, and preventing minors from attending Mass, right after the declaration of the agreement.

Stimulated by the soaring number of Protestant Evangelicals and Pentecostalists, UFD has intensified the persecution of all Christians, including Catholics, under the veil of Xi’s decree on the Sinicization of foreign religions. Catholics were propelled to replace their portraits of Jesus with pictures of Xi at the behest of the local UFD and government. As a result, China’s diplomatic success abroad seems not to contradict with the growing constraints on religious groups at home.

As for the CPCA, the agreement is doomed to marginalize its present ambiguous role because the ad hoc arrangement only mentions interaction between the BCCCC and the Holy See, while the status of the CPCA is not mentioned. In order to show its grievance, the CPCA, together with the BCCCC, vowed to “love the country and the church and upheld the independence of the church” the moment the agreement was announced. Apparently, the CPCA’s role has become awkward since the agreement was reached. According to its Constitution, the CPCA is a “mass organization formed voluntarily by Catholics.” In other words, it is a civil association composed of Catholics meant to safeguard the CCP’s leadership and uphold the Chinese Catholic Church’s independence. It is not an ecclesiastic association, but it is ubiquitous among Catholics in China, as those not joining the official church – i.e. members of the “underground church” – would face harassment and detainment from the authorities.

Concerns in the Holy See

Meanwhile, there are concerns on the part of the Vatican as well. Despite being regarded as “fervently Sinophile” in the West’s eyes, Pope Francis has acknowledged China’s deteriorating human rights record, particularly its persecution of religious groups and minority. Furthermore, by demanding some underground bishops to give up their bishop positions for those endorsed by the CCP, the Vatican has been accused of making huge concessions to the CCP through “selling out” the underground Catholics. The practical need to gain control, if only nominally, of China’s 12 million Catholics has conflicted with the conscientious need to condemn the CCP, making Pope Francis ambivalent about whether the two sides should sign a formal agreement on the bishop arrangement this October, when the renewed deal will expire.

Taiwan’s lobbying is also a significant factor. In a 2018 meeting, Taiwanese bishops implored Pope Francis not to cut diplomatic ties with Taipei in order to cater to the CCP’s interests. They emphasized that China and Taiwan have already become two completely different countries – one an authoritarian regime and one a liberal democracy – after more than 70 years of division across the Taiwan Strait. This is also consistent with the Holy See’s position; it does not cut ties with other countries easily.

By signing the provisional agreement with Vatican in 2018, the CCP managed to grant the Pope nominal supremacy over the Chinese Catholic Church, without losing the tight control on the nomenklatura of bishops. But there is no doubt that as long as the ambiguity of the CPCA and the split between official and underground church are not solved, the finalization of a formal agreement on bishop appointments – much less the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Vatican – is still a distant prospect.