David Mulroney served as Canadian ambassador to the People’s Republic of China from 2009 to 2012. He was also president of the University of St. Michael’s College. He is the author of Middle Power, Middle Kingdom: What Canadians Need to Know About China in the 21st Century.
Catholics inside China, and beyond, are waiting anxiously as the details of a recent agreement between the Vatican and Beijing slowly emerge. These discussions, which are about the mutual recognition of Chinese bishops, are important because they could close a rupture that has, since the 1950s, separated the underground Catholic Church, which has remained faithful to Rome, and a “patriotic” church overseen by China’s Communist Party.
The Vatican has long sought to close this painful divide. While that largely reflects a desire to bring reconciliation to China’s Catholic community, it’s also about ensuring the long-term viability of Chinese Catholicism itself. The leadership of bishops, an essential component of the institutional church, has a public as well as a spiritual dimension, something that requires at least some official sanction. In the absence of an agreed context within which the church can operate, its growth in China has stagnated. In contrast, thanks to the rapid emergence of unofficial “house churches,” which are typically small enough to operate under the official radar, Protestantism is flourishing in China.
But the fact that the Catholic Church has survived at all in China points to an essential element that transcends hierarchy and official sanction. One of the most memorable encounters of my foreign-service career was a meeting in 1986 with Cardinal Ignatius Kung, then under house arrest in Shanghai after having been released from more than three decades of imprisonment. Then-Bishop Kung was first incarcerated in 1955, as official suppression of the church intensified. Months later, when paraded before a jeering crowd, he refused demands that he renounce his faith. Pushed in front of a microphone, Bishop Kung simply said: “Long live Christ the King. Long live the Pope,” words that formed the prelude to his long imprisonment.
Ignatius Kung’s heroic gesture encouraged China’s Catholics to remain faithful to a church that was clearly willing to endure great suffering, even martyrdom, in its unshakable fidelity to the gospel. Unfortunately, that same sense of faithful witness has been less conspicuous in the current negotiations. Indeed, the very flexibility displayed by the Vatican’s negotiators has raised eyebrows. Central to the deal has been China’s insistence that the Vatican accept seven state-appointed bishops previously excommunicated for participating in Beijing’s illicit ordinations. The Vatican readily agreed, and prepared the way by ordering two faithful bishops to step aside. Two of the newly recognized bishops are already participating in the Youth Synod now under way in Rome, where they were warmly welcomed by an emotional Pope Francis.
It hasn’t helped that the negotiations have been accompanied by a succession of foolish statements from senior Vatican officials. Admittedly, star-struck visitors to Beijing often see the China they want to see, ignoring the far messier reality, but the Vatican team has taken this to new depths. An Italian archbishop suggested that China – widely condemned for its human rights abuses – represents the most authentic vision of Catholic social teaching. Disgraced ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick - once something of a Vatican envoy to China, and now, in the wake of allegations of sexual abuse of seminarians, living in enforced retirement - spoke glowingly of the similarities between Francis and China’s strongman president Xi Jinping.
But Mr. Xi, who is waging an unrelenting campaign against religious belief and believers, is at the heart of what worries many Catholics and many China watchers about the agreement. State oppression is most ferocious in the country’s far west, where an estimated one-million Muslim Uyghurs have been exiled to re-education camps.
But Christians are also suffering. Under the guise of “sinicizing” Christianity, or making it more Chinese, officials are demolishing churches, stepping up surveillance and censorship, and banning children from services.
In acknowledging the slow progress of negotiations, Francis suggested that the on-again, off-again pace reflected “the wisdom of the Chinese.” The Vatican can expect a lot more of the same from Beijing. Any agreement or contract in China is but the first step in a process that is always subject to renegotiation by the Chinese.
Meanwhile, Catholics will follow developments with close attention and prayer, hoping that, going forward, as the focus shifts to the fate of the surviving underground church, the Vatican takes its inspiration from Cardinal Kung rather than from Cardinal McCarrick.