China Church Unity at What Cost?

EDITORIAL: China’s persecuted Christians deserve hard answers to tough questions, and the Holy See has yet to provide them.

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How far will the Holy See go to secure an accord with the People’s Republic of China that preserves the Pope’s authority over the appointment of bishops?

Only the general outlines of the ongoing talks between Rome and Beijing have been confirmed. But the optics of a deal that is supposed to lay the groundwork for the unification of China’s 10-12 million Catholics have raised fears that it could actually hamper the Church’s independence and its freedom to speak out in defense of persecuted Christians and others caught in the crosshairs of a Chinese Communist Party that has tightened its grip on the nation.

Indeed, as Catholics wait for more details about the plan to be disclosed — with news reports suggesting that an accord could be signed in late March — Pope Francis’ comments during a private meeting with Cardinal Joseph Zen, retired archbishop of Hong Kong and a vocal critic of the Vatican’s rapprochement with Beijing, raised fresh questions about the negotiations.

According to Cardinal Zen, the Holy Father acknowledged the painful difficulties faced by Church leaders loyal to Rome and said he had warned his envoy that the talks should not “create another Mindszenty case.”

The reference to Cardinal József Mindszenty of Hungary, the towering Church leader who openly challenged totalitarian rule in his country, was a striking choice of words.

Like many bishops in China’s underground Church who have been loyal to Rome, Cardinal Mindszenty endured imprisonment and torture at the hands of the communist regime that controlled Hungary after the Second World War. Later, he lived under voluntary house arrest in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest until agreeing in 1971 to leave his homeland and settle in Vienna.

He remained a beacon of religious resistance to Soviet-era communism, and as Pope Paul VI sought to improve relations with regimes in Eastern Europe, the cardinal became a thorn in his side. In 1973, the Pope stripped him of his title of archbishop of Esztergom, and the see was declared vacant.

The Holy See’s treaties with Eastern Bloc governments “were intended to provide for the sacramental life of the Church by facilitating the appointment of bishops,” explained George Weigel in a harsh assessment of the Vatican’s past efforts to engage totalitarian regimes published in National Review. “The Catholic hierarchy in Hungary became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Hungarian Communist Party. In … Czechoslovakia, regime-friendly Catholics became prominent in the Church while the underground Czechoslovak Church of faithful Catholics struggled to survive under conditions exacerbated by what its leaders regarded as misguided Roman appeasement of a bloody-minded regime.”

What, then, is the connection between Cardinal Mindszenty’s lonely struggle during the Cold War and Pope Francis’ plans for the Church in China? Is the Pope asking Cardinal Zen and China’s underground bishops to hold their fire and avoid antagonizing Beijing and blowing up the accord? That’s one interpretation, and Cardinal Zen himself has characterized the proposed accord as a “cage.” The faithful, he told Reuters, will be “like caged birds, but the birdcage will be bigger.”

Robert Royal, author of The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History, suggested that Pope Francis sees the accord as a life raft for Catholics in China — even if the outcome gives the state greater influence over Church affairs and could effectively restrict the bishops’ ability to confront the regime.

“Naturally, no one wants faithful Catholic bishops subjected to decades of persecution and imprisonment,” Royal told the Register. “But if the only alternative is to cede control of the Church and its teachings to a militantly atheistic state, whether in Central Europe or the Far East, it seems that the way of the martyrs and confessors — and Mindszenty’s — is not only a possibility, but may even be a necessity.”

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state who is supervising the negotiations with the People’s Republic of China, did not address the Pope’s remark about Mindszenty, but he has provided further context for the Vatican’s moves.

In an interview with Vatican Insider, he presented the unification of China’s divided Church as the Church’s first concern and suggested that Beijing had actually given underground Catholics some breathing room amid ongoing state-led persecution.

“[T]he main purpose of the Holy See in the ongoing dialogue is precisely that of safeguarding communion within the Church, in the wake of genuine Tradition and constant ecclesiastical discipline,” said Cardinal Parolin. “You see, in China, there are not two Churches, but two communities of faithful called to follow a gradual path of reconciliation toward unity. It is not, therefore, a matter of maintaining a perennial conflict between opposing principles and structures, but of finding realistic pastoral solutions that allow Catholics to live their faith and to continue together the work of evangelization in the specific Chinese context.”

The secretary of state did not explain what these “realistic pastoral solutions” might involve. But it seems likely that he was referring to recent Vatican actions that have been widely characterized as a “bow to China.”

Reportedly, the Chinese Communist Party’s approval of the accord hinges on its demand that Rome recognize seven bishops in the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) as the legitimate leaders of their dioceses. The Holy See has reportedly agreed to this requirement, and, in exchange, it wants the Pope to have final say, or at least proper authority, on the appointment of Catholic bishops.

According to Cardinal Zen, a Vatican envoy met recently with two bishops in the underground Church to ask that they leave their posts, which would then be filled by bishops associated with the state-run church. The two bishops have agreed “in obedience” to the Holy See’s request, and one will now serve as an auxiliary bishop in a diocese led by a bishop from the Patriotic Association.

In the same interview, Cardinal Parolin acknowledged that many underground bishops and their supporters feel betrayed by Rome. Nevertheless, he asked for their “trust” as the negotiations move forward. He did not discuss whether the Holy See will ask other underground bishops to step down and allow their posts to be filled by bishops with ties to the state. Nor did he address the possibility that the replacement of the two highly respected underground bishops could provoke a backlash against the Church and badly damage its moral credibility.

Truth be told, the Vatican’s hopes for a new flowering of Catholicism in China seem out of step with the Chinese regime’s newly stated policies.

Last October, at the congress of the party’s top leadership, President Xi Jinping signaled that controls on organized religion, the internet and other sectors would be tightened, not loosened. “The party exercises overall leadership over all areas of endeavor in every part of the country,” said the party leader.

With this backdrop in mind, Cardinal Parolin’s insistence that the negotiations should instill “trust” in “the Spirit” will likely provoke skepticism. China’s persecuted Christians deserve hard answers to tough questions, and the Holy See has yet to provide them.