Is Pope Francis Selling Out the Chinese Underground Church to Its Government?

Pope Francis may recognize the Chinese government’s own version of the church at the expense of the faithful who have defied the government. Not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.

Alessandro Bianchi

ROME—It has been nearly 70 years since the Roman Catholic Church had a direct say in official Catholic affairs in China after the communist regime expelled the papal nuncio from Beijing in 1951.

By 1960, the Chinese government had set up its own version of the Holy See, calling it the Catholic Patriotic Association with political appointee bishops chosen by the government. Most of the Chinese bishops, including three under Pope Francis, have been excommunicated by the mother church in Rome, which claims total authority over such appointments.

Of China’s nine million Catholics, nearly six million are part of the Catholic Patriotic Association. The other Chinese Catholics are members of a smaller parallel church, whose worshipers defy the Chinese government and instead bow to Rome’s ultimate authority, often meeting in makeshift structures to pray. Their bishops are appointed and approved by Rome.

Now, according to a report by the influential Jesuit magazine America, Pope Francis may be ready to accept Beijing’s previously outcast bishops and bring the Catholic Patriotic Association’s sizeable rogue membership back to the fold.

An unnamed source told America that a deal is “almost made” between Rome and the Chinese official church whereby Pope Francis would recognize seven of the most recently appointed bishops, including the three who were excommunicated.

A delegation from Rome, led by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, has met with a Beijing group a dozen times to hammer out the framework of a future collaboration between the two churches. The key issue for the Vatican hinges on full authority in the appointment of bishops going forward in exchange for accepting those Rome once denied. In all previous exchanges, the deal fell apart in the eleventh hour when Beijing apparently refused to concede the choice of its bishops. This time, though, according to the America article, the deal looks likely to hold.

“Pope Francis is expected to sign a decree that lifts the excommunication on the three bishops subject to such penalty, grants pardon to all seven illicit bishops and recognizes them as legitimate bishops in the Catholic Church and as ordinaries in the seven dioceses where they now reside,” according to the magazine. All seven of the previously illegitimate bishops have reportedly all been to Rome to ask forgiveness from Francis, which was a Vatican stipulation in the agreement.

The catch this time is that the underground Chinese church, which does not operate with the Chinese government’s blessing, will apparently have to give up two of their bishops who were appointed by Rome “for the good and the future of the whole church in China.” The demand was Beijing’s, which has long sought to stifle the Catholics faithful to Rome. The agreement coincides with a new regulation that came into effect February 1 under which China’s underground church will be under greater scrutiny. Those members will be obliged to move to the legitimate Catholic Patriotic Association church as part of the agreement.

“The Holy See’s proposal invited Monsignor [Peter Jianjian] Zhuang, now 88, to resign and make way for the illicit Monsignor Huang Bingzhang to become bishop of Shantou diocese,” according to America. “Likewise, it invited Bishop Guo Xijin to step down and accept to become auxiliary or coadjutor to the illicit Monsignor Zhan Silu in Mindong diocese.”

The Catholic chess game has not pleased most Chinese Catholics, with many accusing Francis of “selling out” for the sake of increased membership. Zi Lian,a professor with Duke Divinity School called the agreement “a slap in the face” in a recent Washington Post article. “The Chinese government has very little to lose, and the Vatican has a lot more to lose and very little to gain,” said Lian. “The Vatican risks losing its spiritual authority and dampening the spirit of the Catholics.”

Retired bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen wrote in a Facebook post translated by Crux Catholic website that the move will give “the blessing on the new strengthened schismatic Church.”

“Please, notice that the problem is not the resignation of the legitimate Bishops, but the request to make place for the illegitimate and even excommunicated ones,” Zen wrote. “Many old underground Bishops, though the retirement age law has never been enforced in China, have insistently asked for a successor, but have never received any answer from the Holy See.”

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Zen said he was in tears when he made his plea not to enter into this agreement with Francis, warning him that he should not trust the Chinese government to honor its side of the deal and that any such unification will actually cause a larger schism in an already divided Chinese church.

Reuters, quoting its own unnamed source, warned that the thorny agreement is a compromise that might not be worth it. “Afterwards we will still be like a bird in a cage but the cage will be bigger,” the source said. “It is not easy. Suffering will continue. We will have to fight for every centimeter to increase the size of the cage.”