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Drew ChristiansenFebruary 12, 2018
People pray during morning Mass Jan. 30 in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing. (CNS photo/Roman Pilipey, EPA)People pray during morning Mass Jan. 30 in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing. (CNS photo/Roman Pilipey, EPA)

News of the Holy See’s possible rapprochement with the China’s Communist government on the appointment of bishops has aroused charges of a betrayal of the “underground church” and fears of the abandonment of Catholics who for decades have suffered for the sake of their fidelity to Rome. Western journalists have been too easily swayed by misleading accounts circulated by those opposed to an entente between Rome and Beijing.

Too many Catholics, Americans in particular, still see the situation of Chinese Catholics through the lenses of the Cold War. Most foreigners are ignorant of the changes that have affected Chinese Catholics in recent decades. They also ignore the transformation in official Catholic attitudes toward Communism and in favor of the enculturation of the Gospel in local cultures. In light of these developments, the new Vatican initiatives on the nomination of bishops and the promise of normalization of the church’s life in China are not new departures, but the outcomes of long trends in the life of the local church and of Vatican-Beijing relations. Here are some developments to consider.

Western journalists have been too easily swayed by misleading accounts circulated by those opposed to an entente.

Joint appointment of bishops. On and off, the Vatican and Beijing have been jointly appointing bishops for more than 20 years. Sometimes there have been problems, especially when lay leaders of the government-controlled Patriotic Association wanted to reclaim power within the process, but the trend has been for joint appointment.

At its best, diplomatic coordination has led to joint appointments for new bishops to succeed to the leadership of both registered and unregistered diocesan churches. Even before joint appointments, most government-selected bishops quietly offered their pledges of fidelity to the pope. The joint appointment of bishops illustrated the common interest both Rome and Beijing have in the unity of Chinese Catholics.

The Vatican and Beijing have been jointly appointing bishops for more than 20 years.

Reconciliation between what St. John Paul II called the “Two Faces” of the church in China was the goal of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter to the Chinese church. It appealed for church unity and unity among the bishops for ecclesial and theological reasons. But it is likely that Pope Benedict also regarded unity as a prerequisite for normalization of the church’s status within China.

Intermingling of Catholics in daily life. Most outsiders do not understand how closely Catholics from registered and unregistered churches are already interacting, especially in cities. Candidates for the priesthood study together in the same seminaries. Parishes often share the same quarters, with underground Catholics worshipping in the official parish church at their own times, and pastors of the two communities share rectories.

Anti-communist Catholicism: Time for aggiornamento? It has been 55 years since St. John XXIII’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris”(“Peace on Earth”). At the time of its publication, the letter’s most controversial affirmation was its opening to dialogue with political parties of the left, including the Italian Communists. Pope John himself penned the line that distinguished between adherents of an errant ideology and the ideology (Marxism) itself. “Pacem in Terris” cleared the way for a new relationship with the Communist governments of Eastern Europe and the re-establishment of the Catholic Church in the East. But even with shifts in the policies of the People’s Republic, that opening to Communists has not been accepted by intransigent elements of the underground church. Might it not be time to apply John’s teaching to relations with the Chinese government? Why should China be an exception to world Catholicism’s aggiornamento in church-state and political relations?

Pope Francis appears inclined to accept the idea of Chinese Catholicism rooted in the world’s most ancient civilization.

Chinese culture and the Gospel. Pope Francis has his own theological rationale for a rapprochement with Beijing, whose policy is to “Sinicize” religion—that is, to give it a Chinese character. A cornerstone of his apostolic exhortation “Joy of the Gospel” is that each culture produces its own unique synthesis with the Gospel. The forward movement on relations that has Pope Francis’ support indicates he is inclined to accept the idea of Chinese Catholicism rooted in the world’s most ancient civilization.

Because Francis is a Jesuit, moreover, who has sponsored events with the Chinese in honor of the 17th-century Jesuit and Servant of God Matteo Ricci, whose methods of evangelization respected Chinese culture, Beijing has reason to trust the genuineness of this pope’s initiatives. Ricci is revered in China still. Why, then, should the Catholic faith in China be tied to the forms of 19th and 20th century Roman Catholic culture while enculturation takes place in other cultures across the world?

Tension in the underground. Finally, one factor that led to Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter was tensions in the underground church. There were internal rivalries and factions in various dioceses. Bishops held onto office beyond retirement; sometimes they re-asserted their authority after a younger bishop had been appointed. For the benefit of Catholics themselves, the church had and still has an interest in establishing order in China’s local Catholic churches. With these tensions internal to the underground church in mind, it is easier to comprehend why the Holy See seems to regard the ecclesial common good as requiring unity among the Chinese bishops and diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Beijing. There is a belief in Rome that locals could be assisted in dealing with these troubles with an apostolic delegate or nuncio residing in Beijing.

Over the years, there have been frequent reports that Beijing and Rome were close to concluding an agreement, but no breakthrough occurred. So people should not let their hopes, or their fears, grow too high. China has been tightening regulation on nearly every group, and every week formerly trusted political leaders fall in anti-corruption campaigns that consolidate power at the top. Nothing is certain. But all the same, the Holy See seems to be preparing for the day when the Catholic Church, united once again, will enjoy a normal existence in the China of today and tomorrow.

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Andrew Strada
6 years 3 months ago

Meet the devil halfway often enough and soon you find yourself on the outskirts of hell.

The Holy See may look forward to a "normal existence" in the China of tomorrow. The rank and file Chinese citizens will be more in the position of the animals at the conclusion of Orwell's Animal Farm:

"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Mike McDermott
6 years 3 months ago

I am hopeful this new approach will lead to a dramatic growth of the Catholic faith in China.

Catholicism has a heirarchical structure with conformity and accountability. The Chinese government likes that. Catholicism is a religion of peace where supporting the government on secular matters poses little conflict (with the notable exception of the one child policy, which is thankfully ending).

Islam and the Christian evangelical churches lack predictability and uniformity. The more the Chinese trust a religion the more likely they will be open to conversions and growth.

MJ Painter
6 years 3 months ago

Thanks for this explanation and viewpoint. It sheds a different light on the situation.

Anne Danielson
6 years 3 months ago

"It appealed for church unity and unity among the bishops for ecclesial and theological reasons."
The denial of the Unity of Holy Mother Church is the result of those who deny The Unity of The Holy Ghost. (Filioque)

"No one can come to My Father, except Through Me."

There Is only One Word of God, One Truth of Love Made Flesh, One Lamb of God Who Taketh Away The Sins of The World, Our Savior, Jesus The Christ, thus there can only be One Spirit of Perfect Love Between The Father and The Son, Who Proceeds from both The Father and The Son, in The Ordered Communion of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.

It is Through, With, and In Christ, in the Unity of The Holy Ghost, that Holy Mother Church exists
One Bridegroom, one Bride, on earth.

One Bridegroom, One Bride, (One Holy Mother Church), in Heaven.)

Our Lady of Fatima, Destroyer Of All Heresies, Pray for us!

"And He said to me: Write: Blessed are they that are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith to me: These words of God are true."

Gino Dalpiaz
6 years 3 months ago


A huge societal problem is hovering like a dark cloud over modern Chinese society due to their past one child policy. With only mother and father and two sets of grandparents, the lone child, (usually a male), grows up “unsocialized.” Some Chinese parents send their lone son to camps to be socialized. In Chinese society he (usually a boy) is referred to as “the Little Emperor,” because, as the lone child and heir, he is often spoiled rotten by his parents and grandparents. Obesity is one of the pervasive “sicknesses” of modern Chinese children.

“The Little Emperor” has no idea what it means to have uncles and aunts and cousins, because—due to China’s one-child policy— he doesn’t have any and has never had this beautiful experience in his life. When he gets big and finds employment, he will have to support eight people: a wife, two parents, two sets of grandparents, and himself (and perhaps a lone son). And who’s going to pay for his and his wife’s pensions when they get old? This is the situation in China today with its one-child policy. This one-child policy is a time-bomb waiting to explode. There’s nothing China can do to stave off this demographic disaster. They’ve consumed their seed reserve. Next to Japan, China has one of the oldest populations in the world.

alan macdonald
6 years 3 months ago

This reminds me of the Reichskonkordat between the Vatican and Nazi Germany.
If you are going to sup with the Devil (as the Proverb goes) bring a long spoon.
This Chinese deal is a terrible one for the RC Church.

James Haraldson
6 years 3 months ago

“Dialogue as endorsement” and the New Catholicism’s proud support of abortion, including the acceptance of forced abortion as ignorable under the umbrella of “dialogue.” No surprises here. Given their history of getting all giddy over tyranny, not surprising America magazine would be getting all giddy over new ventures in mass murder.

Finbarr Corr
6 years 3 months ago

As a very young priest in the Diocese of Paterson, NJ, I talked a fellow young Episcopalian priest to join me in initiating a pulpit dialogue with a Catholic priest one pulpit and a non Catholic minister in the the other. The results were mind blowing. I do support the Vatican initiating a dialogue between Roman Catholicism (The Vatican) and the Chinese government..It could have very positive results....

Mark Chaplain
6 years 3 months ago

Not what Vatican II clearly teaches:

"19. In discharging their apostolic office, which concerns the salvation of souls, bishops per se enjoy full and perfect freedom and independence from any civil authority. Hence, the exercise of their ecclesiastical office may not be hindered, directly or indirectly, nor may they be forbidden to communicate freely with the Apostolic See, or ecclesiastical authorities, or their subjects.

Assuredly, while sacred pastors devote themselves to the spiritual care of their flock, they also in fact have regard for their social and civil progress and prosperity. According to the nature of their office and as behooves bishops, they collaborate actively with public authorities for this purpose and advocate obedience to just laws and reverence for legitimately constituted authorities.

20. Since the apostolic office of bishops was instituted by Christ the Lord and pursues a spiritual and supernatural purpose, this sacred ecumenical synod declares that the right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and per se exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority.

Therefore, for the purpose of duly protecting the freedom of the Church and of promoting more conveniently and efficiently the welfare of the faithful, this holy council desires that in future no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be granted to civil authorities. The civil authorities, on the other hand, whose favorable attitude toward the Church the sacred synod gratefully acknowledges and highly appreciates, are most kindly requested voluntarily to renounce the above-mentioned rights and privileges which they presently enjoy by reason of a treaty or custom, after discussing the matter with the Apostolic See.'
[Christus Dominus]"


Stuart Meisenzahl
6 years 3 months ago

Father Drew
" Too many Catholics, Americans in particular, still see the situation of Chinese Catholics through the lens of the Cold War"

This sounds frankly like Barack Obama's 2012 dismissive comment to Romney's assertion that "Russia is the U.S's greatest geo-political enemy". Let's hope that You are not as naive as our former President.
Pope Francis's political savvy in Cuba is not looking very astute and it bodes ill for his Chinese outreach.

Henry George
6 years 2 months ago

I don't trust anything China L.T.D.
proposes as the government is all powerful.

Tim Donovan
6 years 2 months ago

I think our Church should have an attitude of cautious optimism regarding our relationship with China. It's encouraging that there is considerable cooperation between the "underground" Church which is loyal to the Pope and the " official " Church controlled by the Chinese government. I fully agree that the Mass should include aspects of Chinese culture. Also, bishops in the "underground" Church should retire at the appropriate age and shouldn't attempt to exercise power when new bishops have been appointed. However , I do believe that Pope Francis and his successors must insist upon their rightful authority to appoint bishops. I do think that in order to bring greater unity between the "underground" Church and the Patriotic Association that the Pope could consider a pastoral visit to China. Finally , it's been well-documented by even secular media including the Washington Post that for many years the Chinese government has coerced millions of pregnant women to have abortions. This is both a violation of the right to life of the innocent unborn as well as the human rights of women to choose a non-abortive method of family planning. Certainly, as an imperfect Catholic, I favor the teaching of Humanae Vitae, but I do support legal contraception and sterilization for adults.

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