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The price of Pope Francis' long view on China

Pope Francis praised the progress of Vatican relations with China and predicted the renewal of the controversial deal between the Holy See and Beijing this week, in a newly released Vatican interview. 

The agreement has been widely expected to be extended for another two years when it expires later this year. 

Pilgrims from China attend Pope Francis's weekly general audience in Saint Peter's square, November, 2017. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo.

But the pope’s words come amid sustained criticism of the agreement’s practical implementation, and as new reports surface that Church institutions are bracing for a crackdown in Hong Kong, raising questions about the Vatican’s diplomatic strategy with the Chinese government.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Reuters, the second part of which was published Tuesday, Francis said that the Vatican-China deal was “not ideal” but “is moving well” and noted that “diplomacy is the art of the possible and of doing things to make the possible become a reality."

“Diplomacy is like that. When you face a blocked situation, you have to find the possible way, not the ideal way, out of it,” said the pope. “I hope that in October [the deal] can be renewed.” 

But how well is the deal “moving” on the ground? And what have been the effects of the last four years of Vatican-China engagement?


On the ground problems

The Vatican-China deal was first agreed in 2018 for a two year period, renewed for another term in October of 2020. 

While the text of the agreement has not been published, it allowed for the Chinese Communist Party to exercise a voice in the appointment of bishops for the mainland, in exchange for bringing the state-sponsored, schismatic church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association into communion with Rome. The deal was also meant to provide some measure of legal protection for the underground Church in China.

Since then, the episcopal appointment process for China has not become notably smoother — dozens of mainland sees remain vacant. Commenting on the appointment process to Reuters, Francis said the naming of new bishops for China “is going slowly, but they are being appointed.”

Who actually is making the final decision on those appointments remains unclear, however. Several of the most recent bishop have been consecrated and installed under government supervision, and announced by Communist Party authorities, without any prior announcement or acknowledgement from the Vatican, fueling reports that Rome was forced to agree to the appointments after the fact.

Meanwhile, many Catholic bishops and priests of the formerly underground Church have refused to register with the government, pointing out that doing so requires affirming state supremacy over the Church, and Communist Party dogma above Church teaching. 

While 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 a campaign of harassment, arrest and detention, with some bishops disappearing altogether.

Asked about the ongoing persecution of Chinese Catholics, Francis told Reuters that the Church does face “the same situation in every region of the country” and the level of hostility to Catholics often “depends on local leaders.”

However, last year, the mainland government issued strict new regulations on Communist Party oversight of religion in the country, including the appointment and registration of Catholic clergy — making no reference to Vatican involvement in the process.

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Diplomatic moves

If the Vatican’s China deal has yielded questionable progress for the Church in China, it has also created complications for Rome on the diplomatic field. 

Many commentators, both Catholic and secular, have noted the Vatican’s self-imposed silence on the Chinese government’s genocidal campaign against the Uighur population of Xinxiang Province. 

At the same time, despite a crackdown on civil rights and liberties in Hong Kong, following widespread pro-democracy protests in 2019 and the imposition of the National Security Law in 2020, the Vatican’s top ranked diplomat said publicly last year that while “obviously Hong Kong is the object of concern for us,” the Vatican effectively lacked the diplomatic heft to intervene in a meaningful way.

“One can say a lot of, shall we say, appropriate words [on Hong Kong] that would be appreciated by the international press and by many countries of the world,” Archbishop Paul Gallagher conceded last June, “but I — and, I think, many of my colleagues — have yet to be convinced that it would make any difference whatever.”

If the Holy See has concluded that it has, essentially, no diplomatic leverage to deploy with Beijing after four years of the Vatican-China deal, it isn’t clear what has been gained from the arrangement. 

One senior diplomatic official told The Pillar that within the Secretariat of State it was generally acknowledged that the Vatican-China deal was a “failure,” but one they were committed to because of Francis’ personal support for the project.

“The deal has not delivered,” the official said on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to discuss the Vatican's deal. But, while he said senior officials at the Secretariat of State “would not sign it again if they could do it over,” Pope Francis remained committed to the process of dialogue and “wishing it never happened is not the same as walking away from the situation now.”

But if the benefits of Vatican dealings with Beijing aren’t apparent, the signs are further diplomatic engagement could be in the offing:

Reopening the Holy See’s embassy in Beijing, closed since the Communist government formally expelled the Church in 1949, has been a long-treasured goal of the Secretariat of State, and the path appears increasingly clear for that goal to be achieved.

One of the chief impediments to full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China is that the Holy See has full diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, Taiwan, though, for decades, its mission there has been headed by a chargé d'affaires. 

Last month, the holder of that position, Msgr. Araldo Catalan, was transferred to become the new apostolic nuncio to Rwanda. Just days later, Msgr. Javier Herrera Corona was reassigned to become the papal ambassador to Congo. Corona had led the Holy See’s diplomatic mission in Hong Kong, which moved its archives off-island to the Philippines more than a year ago, following security concerns and repeated cyber attacks.

While the Vatican has dismissed reports that the reassignments could be part of the Vatican gearing up towards a more formal diplomatic relationship with the mainland as “speculation,” neither of the officials has yet to be replaced.

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Uncertain future

In his Reuters interview, Pope Francis said “diplomacy is the art of the possible and of doing things to make the possible become a reality,” and noted that “the Chinese have that sense of time, that nobody can rush them.”

Referencing Ostpolitik, the Vatican’s controversial diplomatic policy of engagement with Communist governments in central Europe during the Cold War despite the persecution of the Church and of Catholics by political authorities, Francis appeared to urge taking a long view in assessing the fruits of the Holy See’s dealings with China.

But many of the more outspoken critics of the Vatican-China deal have actually criticized it for being short-sighted. 

In September of 2020, shortly before the Vatican-China deal was formally renewed, Cardinal Joseph Zen warned in an interview that the Church’s engagement with the Communist government was costing it moral credibility with the Chinese people, both Catholics and non Catholics. 

Noting the Vatican’s refusal to comment on the campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing against the Uighurs, and the treatment of other ethnic and religious minorities in China, Zen warned that "the resounding silence [of the Vatican] will damage the work of evangelization," and that the Church is “losing dignity and credibility.” 

"Tomorrow when people will gather to plan the new China, the Catholic Church may not be welcome," the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong said. 

Zen’s former diocese of Hong Kong has seen a tightening of restrictions on basic civil liberties following the imposition of the 2020 National Security Law on Hong Kong by Beijing, which criminalized many forms of free speech, both by individuals and in the press, and led to the arrest and imprisonment of dozens of prominent pro-democracy activists, former legislators, and media figures, many of them Catholic.

In May, Zen himself was arrested over charges of “collusion with foreign powers” related to a non-profit group of which the 90 year old is a trustee

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The cardinal’s arrest came just days after John Lee Ka-chiu, a Catholic, was declared the winner of a ballot to select the new head of the Hong Kong Government.

Lee was the only candidate for chief executive considered by the special administrative region’s Election Commission, following electoral reforms imposed by Beijing requiring that all candidates for public office be “patriots.”

On the same day that it reported Pope Francis’ interview, July 5, Reuters also published a story reporting that in the months prior to his reassignment earlier this year, the Vatican’s last head of mission in Hong Kong, Msgr. Cornona briefed numerous missionary groups and Catholic bodies to expect the situation to get worse.

Noting that this year would mark the halfway point in China’s 50-year plan for the reintegration of Hong Kong following the handover from the UK in 1997, the diplomatic reportedly told the territory's Catholic institutions that “change is coming, and you'd better be prepared,” but did not make predictions of specific policy changes.

In December last year, Bishop Stephen Chow, SJ, was formally installed as the new bishop of Hong Kong, following a years-long process to identify a suitable candidate for the role. 

While Hong Kong is not currently covered by the Vatican-China deal on episcopal appointments, throughout that process to appoint Chow and the following months, many Vatican watchers and China commentators have warned openly about the prospect of the mainland government beginning the diocese under the control of state-sponsored CPCA and direct oversight of the Communist Party.

However, speaking to The Pillar on Tuesday, senior clergy in Hong Kong and others familiar with the Vatican-China relationship, said that explicitly extending the state control of the hierarchy to Hong Kong was an unlikely next step. Instead, they warned, Catholic institutions would face pressure from the local government.

As part of the crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong, the National Security Law included new regulations on the involvement of foreign groups and governments in Hong Kong affairs. 

One senior cleric noted to The Pillar that many missionary groups and religious congregations in the Special Administrative Region controlled valuable real estate assets through long-term leases from the government, an arrangement that also applies to diocesan premises, including churches and Catholic schools.

Senior clergy in the diocese told The Pillar that the government could exert pressure on Catholic institutions by ordering the forfeiture of leases held by those deemed to be “colluding with foreign powers,” a crime under the National Security Law which the government has indicated can extend to overseas fundraising.

The situation in China, as Pope Francis said, is “not ideal.” While he says renewing the deal is the smart move, and one that takes the long view, by that measure, only historians can judge the wisdom in the Holy See’s course.

Whatever the eventual fruit, the short term cost of the deal is real — and will soon have immediate and tangible effects on the life of the Church in China, and in Beijing’s expanding sphere of global influence.

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