The pope’s apparent determination to bring the “underground” church out of the shadows has caused some to worry that he might give too much away to China’s hard-line president, Xi Jinping.
BEIJING — Pope Francis has spoken of his admiration for Chinese culture. He has greeted a delegation from China, accepting a silk imprint of an ancient inscription about Christianity. And he had his picture taken with a Chinese bishop in St. Peter’s Square last month.
He appears to be considering more significant action: a grand compromise with China’s Communist leaders to heal the bitter, decades-old rift that has divided generations of Chinese Catholics and prevented the pope from openly exercising authority in the world’s most populous country.
The Vatican says talks are continuing, and much work remains before a deal is done. But Francis’ apparent determination to see a rapprochement with China has caused unease among some who are worried that he might give too much away to the hard-line Chinese president, Xi Jinping.
“Most agree that the two sides must talk,” said a priest in Hebei, a northern province with many “underground” Catholics who reject state oversight.
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“But there is the risk that if the pope moves too quickly, the underground priests will feel the church will lose its autonomy,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Some people have sacrificed a lot, and worry that their sacrifice will not be recognized.”
The Communist Party expelled Roman Catholic missionaries after taking power in 1949, condemning them as tools of Western imperialists, and has required Catholics to worship in “patriotic” churches under state oversight. But a third or more of China’s 9 million to 12 million Catholics worship in “underground” congregations that are loyal to the pope and have resisted state control, sometimes enduring persecution and imprisonment.
The Vatican has long dreamed of returning to China, bringing the underground church out of the shadows and healing divisions among Chinese Catholics. Under Francis, negotiations with the Chinese government over reconciliation have gained momentum.
“We need patience, a lot of patience,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, who has overseen talks with China, said this month in Bologna, Italy.
The central dispute is over the power to name new bishops and the fate of existing bishops in China. For the Catholic Church, bishops are divine successors of the apostles, to be appointed by the pope. But China has long insisted on controlling ordinations, arguing that anything else amounts to interference in its internal affairs.
Most Chinese bishops are recognized by the Vatican and the Chinese authorities, but there are several in the state-backed church who are excommunicated and working without papal approval, including some rumored to have broken their vows of chastity and fathered children.
There are also more than two dozen underground bishops, many of whom are viewed with suspicion by the government and a few of whom are believed to be in prison.
Any deal would have to decide what happens to both groups. “The Vatican can’t be seen as selling out people who have suffered and gone to jail for their faith,” said a Vatican official, who requested anonymity.
Xi has repeatedly warned against religion being used to undermine Communist rule, and his government has torn down crosses from Protestant churches in eastern China and instituted new controls on worship.
But an environmental foundation run by an official with long-standing ties to Xi attended a Vatican conference in September and presented the pope with a gift heavy with symbolism: a silk drape bearing an inscription from an ancient tablet that records the presence of Christianity in China nearly 1,400 years ago.
One benefit of reconciliation for the Chinese government may be that the Vatican eventually decides to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing and cut formal ties with Taiwan, the self-governing island that China considers part of its territory.
Already, most bishops appointed by the state-controlled church quietly win the pope’s approval before ordination, or seek and receive papal forgiveness and acceptance afterward. But Beijing sometimes appoints bishops against the Vatican’s wishes, and the Vatican sometimes appoints bishops without Beijing’s approval. In August, Cardinal John Tong, the bishop of Hong Kong, disclosed in a pastoral letter that “the Chinese government is now willing to reach an understanding” on the issue. But he also acknowledged concerns among members of the underground church and their supporters.
“They wonder if Vatican officials or the pope himself may go against the principles of the church,” he noted, before assuring parishioners that Francis “would not accept any agreement that would harm the integrity of faith of the universal church.”
Francis has said he will not be rushed. “We’re speaking about this slowly, but slow things always go well,” he said last month when asked about the talks. “Fast things don’t go well.”