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New China rules troubling, but not aimed at Vatican deal, say Chinese clerics

New Chinese regulations, which come into force May 1, tighten communist control on religious practice in the country, and double down on the policy of “Sinicization” of religion in China. But the rules do not exclude the Holy See from the process of appointing bishops, and senior clerics in China say they do not expect to see the Vatican-China deal dropped.

A Catholic church in Jingzhou. Credit: Zhangzhugang/CC BY-SA 3.0

On the subject of Catholic bishops, the rules provide for the state-controlled Church and the Chinese bishops’ conference to elect future bishops to lead Chinese dioceses - with no mention of the Vatican’s role in the process. 

But while some China-watchers have interpreted the new rules as a de facto denial of the Holy See’s authority, senior Catholic clerics in China told The Pillar that the new rules were not primarily aimed at Catholics and will not invalidate the Vatican-China deal.

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The provisions of the new state rules on Catholic bishops state that “Catholic bishops are approved and consecrated by the Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference.”

The text makes no reference to the Holy See, and includes the explicit provision that clerics are forbidden from “being dominated by foreign forces, accepting the appointment of teaching positions by foreign religious groups or institutions without authorization, and other acts that violate the principle of independence and self-administration of religion.”

Catholics in China lamented widespread persecution of religious believers in the country, but told The Pillar that it would be a mistake to infer too much from the text, and that the regulations were “not good, but not really aimed at Catholics.”

“We make a real mistake if we think this is ‘all about us’,” one senior cleric in China told The Pillar. “By and large, [Catholics] are not seen as a national problem by the government, with the exception of particular locales and individuals.”

In fact, senior Communist party officials have acknowledged to Catholic leaders that the new regulations do not “interfere” with the Vatican-China agreement on the appointment of bishops, and that “the bishops’ conference won’t proceed with a consecration without a papal mandate,” sources told The Pillar. 

Asked why the provisions of the agreement were not acknowledged in the text of the new regulations, the senior cleric in China told The Pillar that “that would imply a public recognition of a foreign power in China,” something which, he said, is simply out of the question for Chinese internal law.

The cleric, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the situation in China, explained that the new regulations were more detailed than those they replaced, but were primarily aimed at other groups.

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Provisions on financial management,the cleric said, were not aimed at Catholics but at allegations of “massive fraud within some Buddhist temples — bribery, failure to keep accounts, extorting money from believers, building without permission.”

The provisions regarding “domination by foreign forces” were also aimed not primarily at Catholics, but at underground Protestant house churches, the cleric said. 

Those house churches, the cleric said, often have leaders that are “U.S.-trained and funded, or trained and funded at second-hand, and deliberately antagonistic to the Communist Party - requiring renunciation of party membership and publicizing such conversions.”

Nevertheless, regardless of the primary intent of the regulations, the new rules outlaw any religious leaders from ministering unless they have registered with the government, and impose other restrictions on religious practice in China. 

“The degree of the respect for freedom of religion in the public sphere is a clear indicator of the health of any society,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin said during a symposium on freedom of religion in October last year, “and it is also a litmus test for the level of respect that exists for all other fundamental human rights as well.”

Some Chinese Catholic leaders say their congregations face continued - and even intensifying - persecution in recent years, despite the 2018 Vatican-China deal that was intended to provide recognition and protection for members of the underground Church. 

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Despite the deal, Communist authorities, especially regional officials, have continued to detain underground Catholics and to bulldoze churches.

Many underground priests, and some bishops, have refused to register with the CPCA, citing the requirement that they acknowledge Communist Party authority over the Church and its teachings. 

The Vatican’s Secretariat of State issued unsigned guidance in 2019, stating that “the Holy See understands and respects the choice of those who, in conscience, decide that they are unable to register under the current conditions.” Bishops and priests who refuse to register have been subject to systematic harassment, arrests and detention.

Speaking to The Pillar, a cleric currently living in Hong Kong but familiar with the situation on the mainland called the new rules “a betrayal” of faithful Catholics and other religious believers.

“The new rules have the same language about state security and foreign powers as we have in Hong Kong because of the National Security Law,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing concerns over the possibility of arrest.

“The Vatican-China agreement is an agreement by diplomats and institutions, it has no soul and cares for no souls. Cardinal Parolin [the Vatican’s Secretary of State] is happy to see the faithful make sacrifices for the tranquility of diplomacy, but he will never see the inside of a Chinese jail or look in the eyes of someone who has suffered for his agreement,” the cleric said.

Speaking in October, shortly before the Vatican-China deal was renewed, Cardinal Parolin said that the agreement was intended “to help the local Churches to enjoy conditions of greater freedom, autonomy and organization, so that they can dedicate themselves to the mission of proclaiming the Gospel and contributing to the integral development of the person and society.”

At the time of the deal’s renewal, Parolin was asked about the persecution of Christians in China and responded “But what persecutions?”

Parolin said that the provisions of the agreement would allow the Church to “become an instrument of evangelization” in China, a vision not shared by senior local Catholics. 

In September 2020, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, said in an interview that the Vatican’s deal with China, and refusal to speak out against the imprisonment of more than a million Uighurs in concentration camps on the mainland were damaging the Church’s moral authority in China. 

“The resounding silence [of the Vatican] will damage the work of evangelization,” Zen said. “Tomorrow when people will gather to plan the new China, the Catholic Church may not be welcome.”

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And while the new regulations leave the provisions of the Vatican-China deal intact, there remain questions about the deal’s effectiveness in the first place.

China watchers have noted that while the 2018 deal aimed to provide for the smooth appointment of episcopal candidates, there has been effective gridlock on naming bishops to China’s dozens of vacant sees. 

At the time of the deal’s renewal in October, only two bishops had been appointed under the new process. 

Since then, in November, the CPCA announced the consecration of a third bishop, Thomas Chen Tianhao, for the Diocese of Qingdao. The consecration was announced by the state-sponsored Church on Nov. 23, with photographs of the event, but the appointment was not announced by the Vatican, and Chen’s name was not listed in the Holy See’s regular bollettino of appointments. 

Although the Vatican press director issued a statement the following day recognizing Chen as “the third bishop appointed and ordained in the regulatory framework of the Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China on the appointment of bishops,” questions remain about whether the Holy See had prior notice of the event, or if they had been made to accept the consecration as a fait accompli.  

The senior cleric in China told The Pillar that he, and other Catholics on the mainland, expect the deal to hold, and that China was unlikely to forge ahead with appointments without Roman approval. The Chinese bishops’ credibility with the local faithful, he said, is key to maintaining the link to Rome.

“The Chinese bishops are, by and large, desperate to maintain their communion with the Holy See,” he said, “because the faithful - who are far more suspicious than the bishops are of the CPCA - won’t have anything to do with them if they do anything that puts them out of communion.”

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