Historic talks between Vatican and Beijing could unify the Church in China but critics say a deal with an atheist government would 'betray Christ'

The Holy See and China may be on the brink of a historic deal that could end decades of hostility and stalemate. The agreement would have unprecedented political, doctrinal and pastoral ramifications.

The stakes are so high that Cardinal Joseph Zen has argued that the accord would “betray Christ” and represent a “surrender” to the communist regime. Is the retired Bishop of Hong Kong right?

Intensive talks between the Holy See and the Chinese government have taken place all year, both in Rome and Beijing. Pope Francis had hoped to seal a deal before the end of the Year of Mercy, a deadline that has now passed. But indications are that the completion of the negotiations may not be far away.

Cardinal John Tong, the present Bishop of Hong Kong, revealed in August that Vatican and Chinese officials had reached an initial agreement on the appointment of bishops, but no official details have emerged. In November, he said that “the concrete terms of the mutual agreement have not been made public” – a hint that a deal has been made, but is being kept under wraps for now.

Last month three new bishops were ordained with the approval of both the Holy See and the Chinese government, a further sign of a rapprochement. But to complicate matters, a bishop who has been excommunicated by Rome recently took part in the ordination of a new bishop: Bishop Lei Shiyin of Leshan attended the ordination of the new Bishop of Chengdu, Joseph Tang Yuange.

At the heart of the reported deal is the question of authority over the appointment of bishops in China. The Holy See broke off relations with China in 1951, two years after the communists took power. The regime established the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), which does not officially recognise papal authority. An underground Catholic Church, in communion with Rome, has existed since then, enduring severe persecution over the decades, with many of its bishops and priests jailed by the regime.

Yet the neat distinction between the state and underground churches is often blurred on the ground. Many bishops in the state-controlled CCPA, who are appointed by Beijing, are also recognised by Rome, and some Catholics in the underground Church have links with the CCPA. The idea that the two are entirely separated and do not mix is simplistic.

If a deal is reached, it is likely to entail a compromise over the appointment of bishops, with a shortlist of nominees submitted to the Holy See by government officials in Beijing. It is highly unlikely that the Chinese Communist Party would cede complete authority to Rome, but an agreement might involve this compromise. In return, Beijing would expect the Holy See, one of the few remaining states that recognises Taiwan, to accept its “one China” position and switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

Such a move would be a step too far for many Catholics. They argue that it would be unacceptable for officials from an atheistic, communist dictatorship with an appalling human rights record to be involved in the process of selecting bishops – an activity which should be the sole prerogative of the Church. To do this at a time when China is intensifying restrictions on religious freedom, cracking down on human rights lawyers and eroding Hong Kong’s freedoms seems particularly inappropriate to them.

Some observers believe that the current human rights crackdown in China is the worst since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Xi Jinping’s leadership, they say, has brought back echoes of Cultural Revolution-style repression. In the last two years, more than 1,000 church crosses have been removed in Zhejiang province alone, and new regulations on religion issued last month further tighten the state’s control over religious bodies. Lawyers who have defended religious freedom have been abducted or arrested. They are then either jailed or “disappeared”.

New allegations have emerged recently about the regime’s use of prisoners of conscience for organ-harvesting – the forcible extraction of vital organs for sale for transplant patients. According to the former Canadian government minister David Kilgour, the human rights lawyer David Matas and the journalist Ethan Gutmann, the authors of a major new report on this issue, the victims of this barbaric trade are religious adherents – predominantly practitioners of Falun Gong, a severely persecuted spiritual movement, as well as Tibetans and Uighur Muslims. There are suggestions that Christians may also be targeted, although further investigation is required.

Advocates of the deal with Beijing argue that it would unify the Church, bringing together Catholics from the state-controlled and underground bodies and enabling all Chinese Catholics to be in communion with Rome. They also suggest that, if Rome has a relationship with China, it will be better placed to speak out for religious freedom and human rights in the country.

This is an argument that many Western governments make. But the evidence suggests that the opposite is true. Governments are increasingly kowtowing to Beijing and remaining silent, at least in public, while the human rights situation is rapidly deteriorating.

Many significant questions remain unanswered. If a deal is signed, what will happen to the 30 bishops already appointed by Rome but not accepted by Beijing? It is unlikely that they would be welcomed into the CCPA – and almost inconceivable that they would wish to join. And what about the bishops not currently recognised by Rome, including some allegedly engaged in illicit sexual relationships? Also, what would happen to Taiwan and the interests of Taiwanese Catholics?

Some point to the system in neighbouring Vietnam as a model for China. But for anyone concerned about religious freedom, it hardly offers a way forward. Although Vietnamese Catholics are generally able to attend Mass, the movement of some priests and lay Catholics is restricted by local authorities and Catholics who speak out on social issues have been jailed or driven into exile. Land disputes between the Church and the government are rife, and lay people opposing land confiscation have been beaten even as they gather to pray in front of a church. A new law on religion in Vietnam continues to restrict believers. If Vietnam is the model for the Sino-Vatican deal, religious freedom will not be enhanced or protected.

Catholics within China and beyond are clearly divided over how the Vatican should approach the regime. Everyone would welcome a genuine agreement that respects religious freedom. But it is surely naïve to believe, in the current climate, that Beijing will grant that. So the question is how far to compromise.

Cardinal Zen insists that the rumoured deal is wrong because it would make the Church “totally subservient to an atheist government”. A pact that sells out the values of religious freedom and human rights, not only for Catholics but for all, would indeed be a betrayal of everything that the Church stands for.

Cardinal Zen has said: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of new Christians – but if that blood is poisoned, how long will those new Christians last?” We should heed him before it’s too late.

Benedict Rogers was received into the Catholic Church in Rangoon, Burma, in 2013 by Cardinal Charles Bo. He is the author of From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church (Gracewing) and is East Asia team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide

This article first appeared in the December 9 2016 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here