The news flashed around the Catholic world last week that the Vatican was on the verge of concluding an historic agreement with the government of the People’s Republic of China in relation to the Church in that country. The first warning sign, however, was what was reported. Subsequently confirmed reports indicated that a Vatican delegation had visited two underground bishops – Peter Zhuang Juanjian of Shantou and Joseph Guo Xijin of Shintou – in January, asking them to resign their sees and hand control of them over to currently illicitly consecrated bishops of the Patriotic Church. The two underground bishops, it was reported, were visibly distressed at what they were being asked to do but, at first, acceded.
Whether they will is yet to be seen but there are signs that they may already be reconsidering.
Most believing Catholics are aware of the general situation vis a vis the Church in China: since 1949 the Church has been persecuted by the Communist government. In an attempt to eradicate Catholic Christianity, China erected a state-controlled Church headed by illicitly consecrated bishops called the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. The majority of the Catholic Church in China was driven underground by persecution, choosing to remain loyal to Christ, the Gospel and the papacy for its faith. In so doing it became a Church of confessors and martyrs in numerous and heroic ways.
We need enumerate only the example of Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin Mei, Archbishop of Shanghai, who spent 30 years in Chinese prisons for defying the Chinese government’s attempts to control the Church in his country. The news disturbed many faithful Catholics. What was the Vatican up to, they wondered, and what was the future of the underground Church if an agreement is reached?
The questions are not fanciful. Stalking the thoughts of all Catholics interested in this issue is the case of Cardinal Josef Mindszenty of Hungary and the Vatican policy of Ostpolitik (from the German Ost or ‘east’ and politik or ‘politics’) which saw him engineered out of his position so that bishops more acceptable and pliable to eastern Europe’s Communist leaders could be appointed. As has been pointed out by others, Ostpolitik’s reality was that the Catholics of Eastern Europe were effectively sold-out by the Vatican’s diplomats under the leadership of Cardinal Casaroli.
“[Ostpolitik’s] tactics included a cessation of all public Vatican criticism of communist regimes, and endless negotiations with communist governments. The results were, to put it gently, minimal,” wrote long-time Vatican analyst and papal biographer George Weigel in 2016. “ … Ostpolitik came close to destroying Catholicism in Hungary where, by the mid-1970s, the Church leadership was owned and operated by the Hungarian communist party, which also was in de facto control of the Hungarian College in Rome. In Czechoslovakia, the Ostpolitik disempowered Catholic human rights activists, did nothing for those brave Catholic souls who resisted the regime, and empowered a gang of clerical collaborators who served as a front for the communist party and its repressions.”
It is clear that the situation surrounding the Church in China is not uniformly clear to anyone, nor is it universally applicable across that culture. Even within China good, faithful and well-informed Catholic figures are divided in their assessments and therefore on the correct policy to pursue. However, many Catholics around the world are justifiably worried at the possibility of history repeating itself as a farce. And there are plenty of reasons which might justify such fears.
The voice of concern is led by Cardinal Joseph Zen, Archbishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, who has possibly the world’s best and most extensive network of contacts, knowledge and direct experience of the Church in China – including experience teaching in Chinese seminaries from 1986-1992. On 10 January Cardinal Zen took the almost-unprecedented action of flying straight to Rome without an appointment to see Pope Francis, demanding to see him and then placing into his hands a letter from Bishop Zhuang appealing to the Holy Father not to abandon China’s loyal Catholics.
Despite being assured by Pope Francis that there would not be a second ‘Mindszenty’ instance, Cardinal Zen has stated openly on his blog that he is pessimistic about the future. “The proposed “unification” would force everybody into that [schismatic] community,” he wrote. “The Vatican would be giving the blessing on the new strengthened schismatic Church, taking away the bad conscience from all those who are already willing renegades and those others who would readily join them.”
In light of what potentially may be exceptionally disturbing developments, what can we Catholics outside China and in other countries do? One is to wait and be patient. The second, infinitely more important, is to pray – pray with urgency and ardour, in truth and in spirit – for the Church in China and our brothers and sisters who have suffered so much for our Faith. We must also pray for Pope Francis, in whose hands the ultimate power resides to decisively influence and shape the future of the Church and Christianity. May the Lord preserve him, and give him life, and make him blessed upon the earth, and deliver him not up to the will of his enemies.