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Getting ready for ties with Beijing


More than at any time in recent decades, the situation is ripe for mutual recognition of the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. For the past several months, news coming from China seems to confirm that this move is coming.

News that China is ordaining new bishops despite Vatican opposition may delay things, but it will not change the underlying reality.

Under attack for human rights violations, China would gain considerably from the Vatican recognition. From the Vatican’s point of view, normalization would mean that within China a new unity between the government-recognized and the underground Catholic communities would finally be possible, openly and officially promoted by the church.

Why would this breakthrough happen now?

For years China showed little interest in opening talks with the Holy See. However, it has quietly been preparing for recognition by studying the problems of religious freedom and relations between religion and state in other countries. The policy-making and advisory bodies of the Communist Party and of the state have been meeting with experts to work out new policies.

By recognizing the Holy See, China can take away Taiwan’s last embassy in Europe (except Macedonia). If, in addition, it can gain more international recognition in the fields of human rights and religious freedom, then it becomes worthwhile.

For many years, the Holy See, stimulated by Pope John Paul II, has looked forward to normalizing relations with Beijing. Traditionally, Catholics have distinguished between the “faithful” underground church in China and the “compromised” official church. But in 1981, in John Paul’s first message to the Christians in China, he spoke to all Chinese Catholics without distinction and encouraged them to look toward the future. He knew that their past would divide them, while the future can, hopefully, unite them.

During the past 15 years, the large majority of official Chinese bishops (assigned by the government without approval of Rome) have asked the pope to recognize them as bishops. Their applications were made without agreement of Chinese authorities. The Holy See has by now already recognized the large majority of them. In recent years the Holy See has left the underground bishops free to accept the invitation of Chinese civil authorities, who have encouraged them to become official (patriotic) bishops. The decision has been left to the bishops, even though the Vatican has not hidden the fact that it is favor of acceptance.

By 1985 the Taiwanese bishops made an historical and positive gesture along this line. While on their ad limina visit to the Holy Father, they raised the questions of normalization of ties with China and told the pope that they would accept his final decision. If normalization occurs, the church in Taiwan will have made the biggest contribution to this development.

Last August an allegedly confidential Chinese government document found its way into the press. Published by FIDES, a missionary news agency, the document revealed that Chinese government officials were working for normalization. As part of the move, they were working to strengthen the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association to assure that the government -- and not the bishops -- have full control over the Chinese church and will keep it independent from the Holy See.

According to the document, the unofficial (underground) church community would be forced by disciplinary measures to join the official (patriotic) church community. The Chinese government denied the legitimacy of the document. Catholics close to the unofficial (underground) church community have maintained that it is authentic.

The debate illustrates the deep tensions surrounding how Chinese Catholics should maintain unity with the universal church and the pope. The normalization of diplomatic relations would restore internal Chinese Catholic unity with Rome, but if the document is authentic, much more needs to be clarified before diplomatic recognition will be beneficial for the church.

Unity inside the Chinese church will not follow automatically upon normalization. Nor can unity be imposed by any government decision forcing the underground community to join the official church. Unity can only be the fruit of an act of faith among the Chinese Catholics of both existing communities.

In the Verbiest Foundation of Leuven University, we have over the past years searched for facts -- not stories -- about the church in China. The Chinese Communist Party often hides church persecution, which still happens on the local level. The Kuomintang Party of Taiwan spreads negative, often unreliable, news as well. Only the truth can liberate the Chinese church.

Christians and church leaders in the West are not aware of the struggle of official (patriotic) Chinese bishops -- who themselves have spent many years in jail -- to win back the rights of the church in China. Some church leaders in the universal church are even not ready to follow the call of Pope John Paul for reconciliation. One bishop in Taiwan continues to write against the official church community in aggressive language that dates from the time after the Cultural Revolution. Reconciling steps taken by the official church community are often ignored in a merciless and unchristian way.

Today there is not one Chinese bishop who is against the Holy See. Should Catholics in the United States, in Europe, as well as in Taiwan and in China not encourage all Chinese Catholics to meet with each other and pray together, celebrate Mass in any of their churches without any distinction?

If we refuse or neglect to do this, then one morning in the year 2000 we will wake up hearing the news that the pope and Beijing are officially reconciled with each other, while we inside the Chinese church are still contending between official and underground Catholics. We trust and pray that this will not happen.

Fr. Jeroom Heyndrickx, CICM, former vicar general of his order, is the founding director of the Ferdinand Verbiest Foundation, which promotes cooperation with China and Mongolia in the fields of culture, science and development.

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2000