Skip to content

The Church and China: Can Catholics serve two masters?

Cardinal Pietro Parolin praised the witness of Chinese Catholics Thursday, urging them to be good citizens, while reiterating his support for a controversial agreement between the Vatican and Beijing on the appointment of Chinese bishops.

But the Vatican secretary of state’s comments raise questions about whether it is possible to live as both a faithful Catholic and a loyal subject of the Chinese Communist Party, and whether it will remain so.

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

In an interview published August 12, Parolin, who oversees the Holy See’s diplomatic relations, said that dialogue with the Chinese government over the Church in that country will resume after some pause caused by coronavirus pandemic.

“We hope to be able to resume the meetings as soon as possible, and to deal with the many other issues that are on the table and that concern the life of the Catholic Church in China,” Parolin said, while praising the example of Chinese Catholics.

“We are proud of the witness of faith they give. We hope that they will always be good citizens and good Catholics,” said Parolin, adding that it is important for Chinese Catholics to “express this twin dimension in their concrete life.”

But both Chinese Catholic and Vatican watchers have expressed skepticism that it is possible to be both a good Chinese citizen and a good Catholic — suggesting that Chinese Catholics been asked, in the words of the Gospel, to be the servants of two masters?

Many, including bishops, living a life of faithful adherence to the Church while also conforming to ever-tightening state requirements since the signing of the 2018 Vatican-China deal, which gave the Communist Party a say in the appointment of bishops and brought the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association into formal communion with Rome.

As part of the deal, bishops and priests in the “underground Church” were ordered by Beijing to register with the CPCA, to affirm the state’s authority over the Church in China, and assent to Communist party doctrine, in line with a national policy toward the “sinicization of religion,” announced by President Xi Jinping in 2015.

Bishops who had been loyal to the government, ordained illicitly and in schism with Rome until the 2018 deal, have emphasized publicly that being a “good citizen” must come before being a Catholic.

In 2019, Bishop John Fang Xingyao, president of the CPCA said that "love for the homeland must be greater than the love for the Church, and the law of the country is above canon law."

Several Catholic priests and bishops in the country have said that they cannot in conscience  register with the CPCA, as doing so requires them to assent to the idea that Communist doctrine takes precedence over Church teaching. Some, including the now retired Bishop Guo Xijin, have reported sustained harassment and house arrest by government officials as a result of their refusal.

And, despite the deal, which was renewed by the Vatican in 2020, local government officials have continued to order the destruction of church buildings, the removal of crosses, and the arrest of clergy deemed insufficiently supportive of state authority over Church affairs, and offered rewards for information leading to the capture of underground clergy.

In May, Bishop Zhang Weizhu was arrested in the province of Xianxiang, one day after the arrest of seven Catholic priests and ten seminarians in a raid on an underground seminary in Hebei province. Several months later, the location and status of the bishop remains unknown.

In June of this year, a Catholic priest was arrested in the Diocese of Mingdong, near Shanghai, and reportedly tortured for 10 hours until he agreed to sign registration documents with the CPCA.

Despite the persecution of clergy, and the arrest and hounding of bishops, the Vatican has remained positive about the Vatican-China deal, and kept largely silent about the situation of persecuted clergy.

Although Parolin said he is “proud of the witness of faith” given by Chinese Catholics, it is unclear if his comments are meant to extend to imprisoned clergy, or even prominent lay Catholics targeted by the Chinese government.

In June 2019, an unsigned memo was released by the Secretariat of State stating that “the Holy See understands and respects the choice of those [bishops and priests] who, in conscience, decide that they are unable to register [with the CPCA] under the current conditions.”

But while acknowledging that “the text of the declaration required for the registration does not appear respectful of the Catholic faith," Parolin’s department advised clergy to make a mental reservation and to affirm the CPCA’s registration requirements — to sign, but consider themselves to would affirm the text so much as it is "faithful to the principles of Catholic doctrine."

It is not quite clear that clergy making a mental hedge, neither fully affirming a document they are made to sign nor publicly affirming the primacy of faith by refusing to do so, will be regarded as a model of either good Catholicism or good citizenship.

Since the 2020 imposition of a new National Security Law in the previously autonomous region of Hong Kong, several prominent Catholics have been arrested and imprisoned, including Jimmy Lai, the founder and owner of Apple Daily, the now closed pro-democracy newspaper.

Lai is currently serving a 14 month prison sentence for his pro-democracy work. In an interview last year, spoke about how his Catholic faith informs his work, and his targeting by government authorities.

"The way I look at it, if I suffer for the right cause, it only defines the person I am becoming. It can only be good for me to become a better person,” said Lai. “If you believe in the Lord, if you believe that all suffering has a reason, and the Lord is suffering with me...I'm at peace with it."

While some Chinese democracy activists will eventually ask if Parolin’s “pride” in the witness of Chinese Catholics extends to the witness of Zhang and Lai, the cardinal himself has previously focused on the scope of national policies, rather than the plight of individual Catholics in China.

At the time the Vatican-China deal was renewed, he was asked about the persecution of local Catholics and responded "But what persecutions? You have to use the words correctly. There are regulations that are imposed and which concern all religions, and certainly also concern the Catholic Church."

Since then, in a move likely to aggravate Catholics critical of the Holy See’s approach to China, Parolin has insisted, including in his interview this week,that “the West will have to apologize” for doubting the effectiveness of the Church’s engagement with Beijing.

But whether it is the West who will need to apologize, or whether Chinese Catholics may feel it is they who are owed an apology, seems to be a matter of unresolved disagreement.