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The EditorsNovember 21, 2011

For the last 15 years, relations between Rome and Beijing have shown slow but steady improvement following the late Pope John Paul II’s “One Church–Two Faces” policy in the mid-1990s. Catholics from both the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the members of the unregistered, so-called underground Catholic Church have moved toward practical and affective unity. Beijing and the Vatican quietly cooperated in the appointment of bishops and, in some cases, appointed a single bishop or coadjutor to succeed divided official and unofficial church bishops. Because the progress has been real, the current breakdown in relations is all the more difficult to watch.

Over decades of Communist rule, Catholics in China have struggled to manage the dual loyalties of faith and state. Many were driven underground; priests, bishops and laypeople were harassed and arrested. Some died in China’s prisons. But in an era of greater tolerance, Chinese Catholics were beginning to live their faith—together—with growing confidence. The Vatican even quietly validated bishops previously ordained in the Patriotic Association. Official and back channel negotiations explored normalization of relations between the two sides.

Then, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI released a letter exhorting unity, pardon and reconciliation among all Catholics; but it also frankly challenged the legitimacy of the Patriotic Association as “extraneous to the structure of the church.” The association’s current vice chair, Liu Bainian, a long-time party apparatchik charged with managing China’s Catholics, backpedaled from his previous “hope” for a papal visit to China and quickly reoriented himself safely within party lines with an enthusiastic and familiar condemnation of Roman interference in Chinese affairs.

By the time a politburo vote in October 2010 favored party hardliners, the regression to historic postures became just about complete. Michel Marcil, S.J., the executive director of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau, reports that over the last year there has been a clear effort to corral the already limited religious expression of China’s Catholics, and Beijing has once again begun to ordain bishops without Vatican approval. Pope Benedict has ramped up the church’s response to the provocations by excommunicating the illicitly ordained bishops and threatening the same to others who willingly cooperate with the ordinations. The Vatican and Chinese authorities appear to have stopped talking and have returned to wrestling over China’s 14 million Catholics.

As if to emphasize that there is a new reality, in August Zhang Qingli, noted for his heavy-handed administration of Tibet, was appointed party secretary of Hebei, a province home to a quarter of China’s Catholics and the site of the most passionate acts of Catholic resistance. Zhang’s appointment likely signals that a harsher response to popular religious expression is coming.

Meanwhile, far below the headlines over bishops’ appointments, roundups and harassment of uncooperative Catholic priests and laypeople has apparently accelerated. In September the State Department released its regular update on worldwide religious freedom. The report dryly noted that conditions had deteriorated over the past six months in China and once again duly listed the various offenses by Chinese officials against religious expression. The lack of a more significant reaction out of Washington in response to the deepening repression is disheartening.

There is much at stake. The church in China is growing; over the next 40 years there could come to be more Christians in China than in any other country in the world. In the past, China’s Christians feared the might and the reach of the party. Perhaps Beijing now worries over a shift in that relationship.

Both Beijing and Rome have taken missteps; both should review lost opportunities and explore how to rebuild the relationship. They may also wish to reactivate the informal negotiations that appeared promising in the recent past and begin informal dialogue in neutral Catholic academic venues like Georgetown University.

Pressuring China on human rights can be perilous not just for U.S.-China relations but for everyday Catholics in China who are trying to live out their faith as discreetly and truthfully as they can. “No need to pull the tiger’s whiskers to see if it still bites,” Father Marcil says.

True enough, but the tiger might benefit from some plain speaking. The State Department and the Obama administration need to express forcefully their concern over the treatment of China’s Catholics and other religious communities and the persisting problem of religious freedom in China. Annual report cards and scattered criticisms at press conferences are not enough. There should be no opportunity for misunderstanding. A heightened sense of urgency on religious freedom from Washington would be welcome.

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10 years 9 months ago
It is so very easy to support Rome's position on this.  However, the Vatican's own repressive attitude toward women, it's backsliding on the promised reforms of Vatican II and being less than candid on its role in the abuse crisis, worldwide, puts into question its own moral authority on any human rights issues.  Non-cooperation by the Chinese government should, therefore, not surprise anyone.

I'm guessing that bishops who conspire against the people in China are not coddled or left in their positions as they are in the western world.  If a bishop in China were to ship pedophile priests (if there are any) from parish to parish, that bishop would probably be sent to some jail quite expeditiously and stripped of his office... or perhaps he would just disappear one day.  We know for sure that such a bishop in China would not be transferred to Rome from a city, say the size of Boston, and given a prestigious position.
Leonard Villa
10 years 9 months ago
This is not just about communication problems. It is and has about a repressive communist regime trying to control the Church. It's amazing that Cardinal Zen who knows about the situation in China and should have been listened to throughout by the Holy See is not mentioned in the editorial. Asked whether the Communist government would ever allow religious freedom, Cardinal Zen replied: "I think we can hope that the cage will become bigger and bigger, and we hope at the end they'll let the birds fly."
Thomas Farrelly
10 years 9 months ago
"The State Department and the Obama administration need to express forcefully their concern over the treatment of China’s Catholics..."

Obama has other things on his mind, like forcing Catholic hospitals to provide

david power
10 years 9 months ago
This is an op-ed so I am unlikely to get an answer to any questions I might ask.
But having lived in China for a while (Shanghai,6 months) I have to say that all of the catholics there celebrated their faith without any problems.This article perhaps does not do justice to the complexity of China.
Ex-communication is an incredible tool.The fact that the Holy Father ex-communicated them is very very strong.I mean you could rape children and stay in the fold.You could cover it up and even be given a major basilica to run.What on earth did they do to top that?
It is of course complex for a couple of reasons.Why would you bother with the Patriotic church to begin with?They must have the seeds of faith in them it if they are not dependent on the comfort of the herd like most catholics are.
But ex-communicating them also raises the question of all those for centuries who were made bishops by their own states.Are they equally invalid?The first millenium of bishops were chosen by the people I believe and so we must question the validity of their episcopacies?St Augustine is one of many examples.Now I know there has been a change and I generally agree with it but to fail to look at the circumstances and to use ex-communication as part of a power play seems very...........      
Craig McKee
10 years 9 months ago
Reality check: By June of 2011, China had more than $3.2 TRILLION U.S. dollars in its foreign reserve fund (MINUS GOLD!) which is why the rest of the world is not going to trifle with it over human rights and/or religious freedom, as they are all kow-towing for bailouts. And CHINA knows it! Their current global strategy of CHECKBOOK DIPLOMACY trumps all cuz now, more than ever, CASH IS KING! 
10 years 9 months ago

  The expression: ...the church’s response to the provocations by excommunicating the illicitly ordained bishops and threatening the same to others who willingly cooperate with the ordinations..."
 leads to misunderstanding. In the present Church law, a priest receiving ordinatin as a bishop without a mandate from the Pope or a bishop ordaining such a priest is by that very act committing a serious sin thereby incurring excommunication.. The Pope's action is to declare PUBLICLY that such an act has occurred. In the past, on several occasions when such ordinations occurred, the Pope, or others, undoubtedly PRIVATELY  made the concerned priests and bishops aware of their transgression and its penalty of excommunicaiton.  (Of course, as in all immoral acts, personal guilt depends on whether fully informed and delierate consent was given. ) 
  It would be more accurate to say "the Pope publicly made known that they had, by Church law, incurred excommunication."

david power
10 years 9 months ago
"The Vatican even quietly validated bishops previously ordained in the Patriotic Association. "

These guys went from being ex-communicated to being bishops on all a papal whim?This is incredible.It should be the same law for everybody and not dependent on what side of the bed the Pope gets out of.
One of those guys who was validated could go onto become Pope while his equally sincere brother in the Faith is ostracized.hmmm
Craig McKee
10 years 9 months ago
It may be hard to believe, but Roman Catholics in China are receiving much BETTER treatment than Buddhists in Tibet, where young monks and nuns have resorted to public self-immolation to draw attention to their plight:
Brigid Rauch
10 years 9 months ago
I would be more concerned about the Chinese government imposing bishops on the people of China if the rest of the world didn't have our bishops imposed on us by Rome!It is very hard to see good priests native to the diocese passed over again and again as the role of bishop is given as an award to some yes-man!

What are the differences between Bejing's bishops and Rome's?  Do Beijing's bishops set themselves against Church teaching in any areas save hierarchial authority?
10 years 8 months ago
"Earthly kings lord it over their people....Yet it cannot be that way with you. Let the greater among you be as the junior, the leader as the servant.... But I have prayed for you [Peter] that your faith may never fail. You in turn must strengthen your brothers." (Luke 22:25-26, 32) Let Pope Benedict and the Curia take this message to heart. Allow local churches to choose their own bishops as was the practice for centuries. Let them stop trying to control everything, even to the words of the liturgy. Let them in short step aside and allow the Holy Spirit to guide the Church. The losers in this battle are the Chinese Catholics. Would Peter have threatened Paul or the church of Macedonia with excommunication because they dared to choose a leader that Peter had not selected? As repressive and tyrannical as the policies of the Chinese leaders often are, the Vatican's in this case are far more hurtful and shameful because they threaten spiritual penalties.

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