Entrance to the Church of the Savior, also called Xishiku Church or Beitang, is the earliest Catholic church in Beijing, established by the Jesuits in 1703. Photo: iStock

Some 17,000 mainland Chinese Catholics were baptized on Easter Sunday alone. These striking numbers emerged during a symposium on the conditions of Chinese believers held in Rome on Wednesday under the auspices of the Holy See’s Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions and AsiaNews, a Catholic news agency based in Italy. So despite all the restrictions and limitations imposed by the Chinese government, the Catholic Church is showing strong resilience coupled with the capacity to spread across the country.

In his greeting message, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, said the “Holy See is working for the Roman Church in China”. A dialogue between Beijing and the Vatican is indeed under way, but negotiations have so far been slow to make headway.

State persecution

Guests at the event pointed out that the major problem for Chinese Catholics remained the suppression of religious freedom. As evidence of this situation, AsiaNews reported that Monsignor Peter Shao Zhumin, bishop of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, had been held under arrest by Chinese authorities since May 22, the latest episode in a long history of persecution against Catholic prelates.

Shao is an “underground” bishop, which means he is loyal to the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church but is not recognized by the government-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) and Chinese Catholic Bishop’s Conference (CCBC).

The appointments of bishops, which both the CPCA and the Holy See lay claim to, is the real sticking point in the current Sino-Vatican engagement. Communist China and the Catholic Church cut diplomatic ties in 1951. Since then, the Vatican has been lamenting the stifling control of the Chinese government over the local Catholic Church.

In a  2007 letter to Chinese Catholics, then-Pope Benedict XVI clearly demanded autonomy in the spiritual sphere for the Church in China as opposed to the power exerted by Beijing through the CPCA and the CCBC.

Benedict’s words went unheeded, however. The symposium’s organizers read testimonies by official and underground priests from different provinces of China who were prevented from participating by a ban levied by the authorities in Beijing. They provided a grim picture of the religious situation in the country, with both the official and unofficial churches being forced to submit to the political leadership and compete with one another to secure economic support from the state.

Cultural unification and ‘gray pragmatism’

Through the meeting, Richard Madsen, an American sociologist of religion from the University of San Diego, said China was experiencing a religious renaissance. In his opinion, however, this trend is slowed by the Chinese leadership’s efforts to create a unified culture across the country (including in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan), which, in contrast, has always been characterized by different “social ecologies”.

For Monsignor Savio Hon Tai Fai, secretary of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, China’s religious renaissance is also endangered by what he described as “gray pragmatism”, the notion of growth at all costs that permeates a large part of Chinese society – and, by extension, portions of the Chinese Church. Savio Hon stressed that this gray pragmatism in China had grown along with economic reforms and megaprojects like Belt and Road, Beijing’s initiative to improve transport infrastructure across Eurasia and beyond.

In the face of state-managed persecution, social unification and the promotion of consumerist materialism in China, it is improbable that a diplomatic compromise between the Vatican and Beijing over episcopal ordinations will be sufficient to generate real improvements for Chinese Catholics, unless it is matched by the recognition of freedom of speech, movement, association and assembly.

According to Father Bernardo Cervellera, editor of AsiaNews, diplomatic relations and arrangements are not so important when the oppression of Catholic believers by the Chinese government continues unabated. In his view, Beijing will make no overture ahead of the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress this autumn, all the more so when divisions within the Communist ruling nomenklatura on how to cope with the Catholic Church start to surface.

But rifts are also visible in the Vatican ranks between those who want to move forward with incremental gains in the relationship with China and those ready to question excessive concessions to the Chinese government – a contrast that further contributes to the stall in the negotiating process.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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