Diplomatic relations between mainland China and the Vatican broke off in the early 1950s when the Papal representative, who had supported the KMT during the civil war, was expelled for urging Chinese Catholics to oppose the PRC’s involvement in the Korean War. Fifty years later, despite decades of attempts at reconciliation by the Vatican and greater tolerance in China, the outlook for normalization has improved little.
For China, the relationship sits at the nexus of several issues that must be managed: political ideology, sovereignty and jurisdiction over its territory and citizens, foreign criticism on human rights, Taiwan, and even Hong Kong (the Roman Catholic bishop there is one of the most outspoken and influential democrats in the city). The Vatican’s interest is comparatively simple, but is fundamental to its existence. Rome hopes for communion both among China’s 15 million Catholics and between them and the universal Church; unity in structure, doctrine, and spirit. In addition to horizontal international connections, which have developed since reform and opening began in the late 1970s, a vertical relationship must exist between the Pope and the Chinese clergy and laity.
This vertical relationship, which would be manifested primarily in the Pope’s right to appoint Chinese bishops, represents the central and perhaps insurmountable obstacle to the normalization of China-Vatican relations. Leading expert Beatrice Leung calls it “the problem of conflicting authority;” a vertical relationship with an authority other than the Chinese state is precisely the kind of connection that Beijing has opposed for centuries. A related issue is the existence of the “underground” church in China: those Catholics who profess allegiance to the Pope and who have refused to participate in the state-sanctioned (and state-controlled) churches that deny the Pope’s authority. The third factor is the Holy See’s recognition of the government of the Republic of China. Vatican officials have stated that Taiwan “is not a problem” and have made clear in a number of ways that they will not hesitate to sacrifice political ties with Taipei, but China clings to the demand that the link be broken before any progress can be made. (Taiwan’s foreign minister consulted with Vatican officials in Rome on June 29 and declared that relations remain solid.)
Despite the conflicting ideologies and realities, some positive trends have developed in the past several years which may help build confidence and slowly undo the mistrust, miscalculation, and missed opportunities that have characterized the relationship. After a blunder that is sadly typical and that drove Sino-Vatican relations to a recent low point – the canonization on the PRC’s National Day in 2000 of 120 Chinese and western martyrs killed in anti-Christian violence at the hands of the Boxers and others – John Paul II asked for forgiveness from the Chinese government and people for past mistakes and made a plea for dialogue. China’s foreign ministry pledged to “earnestly study” his remarks (a relatively positive response), but the Pope’s gesture has not yielded results.
Much more importantly, the Vatican and the Chinese government seem to have reached a limited and silent accommodation on the issue of conflicting authority. Despite the fact that Ye Xiaowen, Jiang Zemin’s hardline director of religious affairs, survived the leadership transition, the government seems to have decided that not all bishops deemed acceptable by Rome are automatically unacceptable to China. Quiet papal endorsement is no longer grounds for arrest or persecution. Conversely, the majority of Chinese bishops appointed by government bodies are now accepted by the Vatican. Though the U.S. state department for the past five years has listed China as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom (to a large degree because of the repression of Falungong and other “evil cults”), several international Catholic observers have expressed mild optimism.
Partly as a result of this development, the once sharp physical and spiritual distinctions between the “patriotic” government-sanctioned church and the illegal “underground” churches have begun to fade. Official and unofficial (from the government’s perspective) priests and congregations sometimes work together and even share facilities, especially in areas where the religious affairs and state security officials are sympathetic or apathetic.
However, diehards remain who are displeased with the Vatican’s overtures, and Chinese authorities are not lenient with them. In late June the Vatican angrily accused the government of arresting a number of underground bishops and declared that such actions are “inconceivable in a country based on the rule of law.” China’s foreign and public security ministries deny that any such arrests have taken place. Arrests of Catholics obviously do not improve the atmosphere, but they do provide motivation for many in Rome to establish relations as the “underground” Catholics would no longer need to hide their loyalty to the Pope and thus appear to subvert the government. Even if the Vatican and China do eventually exchange recognition, this split in the church will test the relationships between Rome and Beijing and between China’s Catholics for many years.
There are also some tantalizing hints of indirect communication. It was reported by several news sources in April this year that Vice President Dick Cheney, on his visit to Beijing, delivered a letter from the Vatican to the Chinese government requesting the establishment of normal diplomatic relations. Whether the Vatican actually took this action is unclear. Spokesmen from the Chinese foreign ministry and the U.S. state department said they didn’t know whether the vice president carried a letter, and Taiwan’s foreign ministry claimed its ambassador to the Holy See was told there was no letter. Regardless, the Vatican’s secretary of state did implore Vice President Cheney, during his January visit to Rome, to raise the issue of religious freedom with the Chinese government. More recently, the outspoken Bishop Joseph Zen of Hong Kong was allowed to visit his hometown of Shanghai for the first time in several years. It is widely agreed that China’s hospitality to Bishop Zen was intended primarily to soothe discontent in Hong Kong (or to divide the discontented), not to signal Rome. The Vatican says it did not give Bishop Zen any specific message to convey to his hosts.
A good deal of this modest progress may be undone on July 7-9, when the National Congress of Chinese Catholic Representatives (NCCCR) meets to ratify policies set in the last year. The NCCCR is the immediate oversight body of the Catholic Patriotic Association, the institutional form of China’s official Catholic church, and the official Chinese bishops’ council. A major theme will be the further “democratization” of church practices, which among other effects tightens the state’s control over the selection of bishops and creates other procedures that are antithetical to Catholic doctrine. The government’s determination to define the top of the Catholic structure is becoming more rigid even as it becomes more flexible on bishops’ identities at the grass roots.
Ideological and Structural Impediments Remain
Even if the NCCCR meetings are not controversial, the issues behind the question of the bishops will continue to impede real progress. To officials in Rome, the power to appoint bishops is a matter of theology, not one of politics where deep concessions can be made. The Second Vatican Council decreed that “the right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and of itself exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority.”  However, in an attempt to remedy the impasse, the Vatican has offered to institute the “Vietnam model,” in which it selects bishops from a government-approved pool. China, because of its history, ideology, and bureaucratic politics, is not prepared to concede.
Traditional Chinese political culture does not permit allegiance to anyone or anything outside the chain of authority and obligation extending from the individual to the emperor. The adherence of China’s modern rulers to Engels’ dictates against all religions, and the Vatican in particular, are reinforced by this tradition and generally act as a drag on any progress.
Contemporary China’s bureaucratic characteristics also block a positive response to the Vatican’s gestures. As the question is located at the intersection of many important issues, a large number of bureaucratic actors have the ability to influence it. Some, such as the foreign ministry, have practical reasons to accept recognition from the Vatican. Others, including Ye Xiaowen and his State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), are ideologically disposed to hinder relations. The state’s relatively weak capacity can either boost or bust the relationship. Arrests and abuse, when they occur, are often carried out by local religious and security officials without the sanction or knowledge of the central authorities. The Vatican’s unrequited complaints of arrests in late June may be an example of this dynamic. The convergence of official and unofficial Catholics in some parts of China is a more positive illustration.
Rome must overcome its own maze of internal obstacles. Some officials there favor establishing relations as a means toward the goals of religious freedom in China and communion with the universal Church. John Paul II has led the effort for reconciliation, but it is not possible to make predictions about his successor. Others do not want to betray the underground Church, and oppose appeasement of the Communists. The Vatican’s news bureau, Fides, is traditionally in this camp, and as a publicity organ it is in a position to increase tension where none may have existed otherwise. The Vatican’s major shortcoming is what appears sometimes to be a willful ignorance of Chinese sensitivities. Officials have admitted that the October 1, 2000 canonization controversy was a result of a lack of China expertise and poor internal communication. There are several other major examples of this clumsiness from the past 60 years.
An early Qing emperor, one of the first to deal with Catholic missionaries, was warned by an advisor that a distinction between temporal and religious leaders was irrational, the equivalent of “two suns in one sky.” While they aren’t as eloquent, the leaders in contemporary Beijing profess the same belief. The authorities in Rome are just as unwilling to compromise their core beliefs. Regular direct communication between the two sides could help overcome many of these organic impediments, but in an unfortunate circle the structural problems in the relationship have precluded extended direct contact. As such, it is unlikely that the two sides will normalize diplomatic relations in the foreseeable future.
1. The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, 1966), 411.