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.