Sino-Vatican Relations: Will the Road to Reconciliation Endanger China’s Underground Church?

By Edward Pentin for the National Catholic Register

VATICAN CITY — Significant advances in relations between China and the Holy See could be just around the corner as dialogue enters a new phase, according to Vatican and Chinese government sources.

Pope Francis’ bridge-building diplomacy is also raising hopes for a papal visit to the country, part of a process to help realize Benedict XVI’s vision of one Church in China. But not everyone is convinced, and the Holy See’s revamped Ostpolitik is causing concern that any gains will come at the cost of compromise.

Chinese media has been the latest to trumpet developments, reporting at the end of February that “hopes have risen” for a thaw in ties between China and the Vatican under the leadership of President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis.

It follows the visit of a Vatican delegation to Beijing last October, and a reciprocal visit by Chinese officials to the Vatican in January. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, told Vatican Radio that the fact the two sides were talking was a “significant step” forward towards a “normalization of relations.”

Cardinal John Tong of Hong Kong, welcomed the development in general terms, telling the Register March 3 that “dialogue and communication are always good for mutual understanding.”

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., who has long-standing connections in China and recently returned from there after visiting friends, told the Register March 2 he couldn’t tell if a thaw was apparent, but said Pope Francis is “understood, recognized, and beloved” by both the Catholic Church in communion with Rome, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the state-controlled Church.

But Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kuin, who describes himself as something of a “Jeremiah” among Chinese prelates, told the Register March 3 that he doesn’t “see any reason for optimism” or for “eagerness,” especially on the part of the Chinese authorities.

“They should not be eager to obtain anything, they have already everything, the full control of the Church,” said Zen, who was bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009. “They should not be so naive to hope that the Holy See can make further concessions. Too many have been made already.”

Religious Freedom Restricted

Religious freedom in communist China has long been restricted, and Catholics continue to be divided between a so-called “underground” Church and those belonging to the Patriotic Association. The country has an estimated 12 million Catholics, of whom around 5.3 million are represented by the 70 bishops appointed by the state-controlled church.

Tensions with the Church mainly date back to 1949 when the Communist Party expelled Catholic and other missionaries. Diplomatic ties were then cut in 1951, and the Patriotic Association, which rejected papal authority, was formed in 1957.

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