As Catholics worldwide headed into Holy Week, the most somber period in the Church calendar, news outlets kept afloat the rumor that in a few days the Vatican would announce a deal with the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China. It was hard to gauge the reaction of China’s Catholics, who number between 10 and 15 million, according to most estimates. Some Chinese prelates, not all of them in communion with Rome, have endorsed the push for an agreement whose central provision, it is widely assumed, is that the government would have a say in the appointment of bishops.
Since the establishment of the PRC in 1949, the government has forbidden religious activities except under its watch. In 1957 it established the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (PCA), an arm of the central-government bureaucracy. The PCA soon began to appoint bishops independent of the Holy See, which considered the association a counterfeit religion and excommunicated those responsible for illicit ordinations.
Meanwhile, Vatican-appointed bishops and their flocks went “underground,” to avoid persecution. Over the years, communication and cooperation between the two communities, the underground and the PCA, have softened the lines that separate them. What the Secretariat of State of the Holy See is reported to be negotiating with the Chinese government is not the integration of PCA churches into the underground Church — the authentic Church, as Pope Pius XII regarded it and as many Chinese Catholics still do — but vice versa.
Chinese Catholics opposed to what is now the party line of the Vatican as well as of the Chinese government have been either few or, more likely, cautious not to talk to Western media. Hong Kong, an autonomous region where freedom of religion and speech is greater than in the mainland, has emerged as a center of Catholic opposition to the current phase of Rome’s longstanding effort to forge a pact with Beijing.
Elsewhere in the world, Catholic opinion is clearly divided. Some think that a formal rapprochement between the Holy See and the PRC would unify a national church riven by disagreement over what degree of state interference in ecclesial affairs the Church should tolerate. Others, recalling the spotted history of Church diplomacy over the past century, dread the prospect of Vatican collaboration with yet another authoritarian dictatorship: In the first half of the 20th century, those infamous concordats with far-right regimes across the Continent; since the 1960s, with Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Vietnam. Those who make the case that China should be added to that list respond that the ample precedent for such an arrangement is an argument for doing it again: See, the Church is still standing. Don’t underestimate its ability to withstand temporary insults to its integrity. And what would be the alternative anyway?
Near the heart of the events that the faithful were invited to meditate on during Holy Week was the fateful reconciliation between Herod and Pilate. In the long Gospel reading at Mass on Palm Sunday, the interests of Caiaphas, the government-appointed high priest, are seen to overlap with those of Pilate, the chief political officeholder and Caesar’s vicar. Church and state, as it were, conspire to catch and kill Jesus, whom each party considers a threat to its authority. If the rumor is true that Rome and Beijing have agreed on a plan for dissolving the underground Catholic Church in China, they might as well go ahead and schedule the consummation for Good Friday.
“Underground” is a misnomer, or at least an exaggeration, say sources who have lived in China and observed the complexity of Catholicism there up close. Most of the scholars, journalists, and missionaries who spoke with me did so on condition that they remain anonymous. Many of them stressed that Catholicism in China is more uniform in practice than Westerners with romantic ideas about an underground Church might imagine. When a member of a Catholic church that is not registered with the government moves or travels to an area, typically a bigger city, where the underground has no presence, he usually has no compunction about worshiping in a church that operates — much depends on how strong or how strained the relationship is between local officials and the local Catholic community — under the thumb, light supervision, or benign neglect of the PCA.
Likewise, when an urban Catholic finds himself at Sunday Mass in an underground church out in the country, he’s liable to notice no difference that isn’t merely architectural. The building may be smaller or less modern, but the liturgy is the same as what he prays at churches back in Shanghai. Though unregistered with the government, a so-called underground church may be above ground for all practical purposes, especially in regions where Catholicism has been practiced for generations and is a familiar and esteemed feature of the local culture.
Given the ease of mind with which believers already move between underground and PCA churches, what good is served by maintaining that distinction? The cost of disestablishing it would be minimal, the argument goes, while the benefits would be obvious. Foremost among them would be unity. Gather all bishops, priests, and parishes into the fold of the same bureaucracy, to bring clarity where confusion now reigns. In the present circumstance, every Chinese bishop falls into one of three categories: legitimate in the eyes of Rome but not of Beijing, legitimate in the eyes of Beijing but not of Rome, or legitimate in the eyes of both. A believer should not have to consult a scorecard to determine whether a church advertised as Catholic is in communion with the pope.
Moreover, many bishops who consented to serve at the pleasure of the government even though they were not approved by Rome later request, and usually receive, the Holy Father’s forgiveness and recognition. In a letter to the Church in China in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI urged such bishops to publicize their newly granted legitimacy to the faithful, to allay misunderstanding and further controversy. He added that Catholics who were prevented by “grave inconvenience” from seeking legitimate bishops and priests had his blessing to turn to those who remained outside Rome’s embrace.
As for Francis, he has made mercy the signature virtue of his pontificate, but the Vatican under his leadership can still play hardball, at least with fellow churchmen. In January, envoys of the Holy See paid a visit to Bishop Zhuang Jianjian, recognized by Rome but not the government, and asked him to step aside so that “an excommunicated bishop and a member of China’s rubber-stamp Parliament,” as a reporter for the New York Times described him, could take over in the Diocese of Shantou.
The Vatican delegation then traveled north, to Fujian Province, to make a similar request of Guo Xijin, bishop of the Diocese of Mindong, the vast majority of whose 80,000 Catholics belong to the underground: Would he step down in favor of Zhan Silu, a government-appointed bishop whom Rome had theretofore deemed illegitimate? What the Holy Father had in mind was that Guo might serve as Zhan’s assistant. Police had arrested Guo last year just before Holy Week and detained him for a month. This year, they arrested him on Monday of Holy Week, two months after the Vatican had in effect forced him aside. He remained in police custody as this issue of the magazine went to press.
Zhan, the government-appointed bishop with whom the Vatican now wants to replace Guo, had recently given Beijing an assist. It was presumably at Zhan’s invitation that Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who has a history, appeared at his side to concelebrate Mass on Easter Sunday last year. The government had appointed Ma the bishop of Shanghai in 2012. So had the Holy See. In his speech at the end of his ordination ceremony, Ma announced that he was leaving the Patriotic Catholic Association. The assembly broke out into “thunderous applause,” according to a note in the transcript published by AsiaNews, the press agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions. He was swiftly escorted away. He was disappeared.
Years passed. He eventually recanted. “There was a period I had been tricked by the outside,” he wrote in a blog post in June 2016, “and made mistakes by words and deeds against the Patriotic Association.” His appearance with Zhan at the altar the following year was visual confirmation of an important symbolic victory of the PCA over the underground.
“We can’t judge Bishop Ma,” a Chinese Catholic who advocates for the underground Church tells me. “Four years is a long time.” Here the voice on the other end of the phone picks up speed, as if repeating a formulaic prayer committed to muscle memory. “We don’t know what they did to him, what they said. ‘What good are you here? Sitting alone in your room. Better to go be with your people, help build up the Church . . .’” Or maybe Ma had concluded, three years into the Francis era, that he could no longer trust that Rome was on his side. Resisting China’s Communist government was hard enough. Resist it and the Vatican?
Two Western missionaries I spoke with have served the Church in China heroically and are not finished. They think that a deal with the government would buy time and expand a little the cage in which they and other Christians can maneuver. They are confident that the Holy Spirit will convert the nation eventually, and they intend to be His tongue and His hands in the meantime, evangelizing, catechizing, and spreading the Gospel through charitable works.
If they were Jewish, they would be Reform or Conservative. Chinese Catholics who will not suffer the Church to be profaned by entanglement with the Communist government would be Orthodox. Their zeal for a kind of purity in religion is instinctive. The Reform or Conservative Catholic tends to see them as rigid and angry — “harmful,” “wackos” — fighting the Spirit and impeding the Church’s mission.
Perhaps most religions feature something of that tension, which is delineated more explicitly in Judaism than in Catholicism, although the latter is marked by a great sweeping diversity of liturgical rites (more than 20) and religious orders, each with its peculiar spirituality and charism — a church so intricately structured should be able to accommodate the different sensibilities represented by the apostolic, outward-facing missionary and the inward-facing keeper of the flame. The yang and the yin of Catholicism need each other, but the institutional Church today is largely blind to the value of their complementarity.
The question is not how many Chinese Catholics are temperamentally Orthodox. It’s how much of the Orthodox temperament runs through Chinese Catholicism. Some Catholics who go to Mass at PCA churches most of the time go to underground priests for “important matters where you really need maximum efficacy, like healing or last rites,” one historian tells me. Another corroborates and elaborates: “Catholics who are at the verge of death will especially want an underground priest to give the Last Rites,” and in the minds even of some who worship in the PCA churches, bishops “have to make many compromises with the government” and therefore “seem more like government cadres than spiritual leaders.”
Deal or no deal, Good Friday has not finished with China’s underground Catholic Church, opposed by both the Communist government and now the Vatican — and by some sincere souls seeking to do God’s work. Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.