Why is China fighting with the Pope?
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Why is China fighting with the Pope?

THE VATICAN and Beijing make for an unlikely duo; one a communist state that rebuffs formalised religion, the other the head of the biggest religion on the planet. But the two have spent a lot of time together of late, locked in a decade-long dispute that may have finally reached a resolution.

The pair have been at loggerheads over who has the authority to appoint bishops in the secular nation. On Saturday, a “provisional agreement” was reached that seems to satisfy both parties.

Pope Francis was forced to defend the landmark decision on Tuesday, saying, that while the government would be a part of the dialogue, the final decision as to who becomes a bishop would fall to him.

China has fought the Vatican long and hard on the issue. But why? What’s the background? And will this new deal work?

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Given the communist rule in China, Catholics are highly monitored and required to worship at registered churches. The state also uses their power install government-backed clergy, much to the chagrin of the Vatican.

In many instances, the state-sanctioned bishops have been agreed upon by both sides – the Vatican realising they need to reasonable in this stand off if they want the religion to survive in the country.

But in some cases, the Vatican has voiced its disgust at some of the hardline “puppet” bishops over whom they had no say at all.

Likewise, the Vatican has gone ahead and appointed clergy without clearing it with the ruling China’s Communist Party (CCP).


Pope Francis speaks with the media onboard a plane during his flight back from Tallinn after the final leg of his visit to the Baltic states, Estonia September 25, 2018. Source: Reuters/Max Rossi

Reaching a consensus on the issue has proven difficult and the tug-of-war has stretched on for years.

The idea of making a deal with the atheist government has split the Catholic community in the country, with some fearing any agreement will lead to greater suppression.

“They’re giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal,” Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former archbishop of Hong Kong, told Reuters.

This split is highlighted in the division of China’s 12 million Catholics into those who worship “underground” with only Vatican appointed clergy, and those who side with the state-supervised Catholic Patriotic Association.

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Those “underground” worshippers risk arrest and persecution at the hands of authorities.

The aim of the last ten years of negotiation was to strike a deal in which no future bishop can be appointed without the blessing of both the pope and the CCP.

And that seems to be what they have achieved.

Although the details of the deal are not released, it seems both sides will get a say as new bishops will be suggested by members of local Catholic communities, as well as the authorities.

These suggestions will then be sent to the Vatican where the pope has the final say and the ability to veto any of those proposed by the state.


atholic priest Liu Yong Wang performs holy communion in a make-shift chapel in the village of Bai Gu Tun, located on the outskirts of the city of Tianjin, around 70 km (43 miles) south-east of Beijing July 17, 2012. Source: Reuters

“It’s not (that the government) names them. It is a dialogue. But the pope will appoint them. Let that be clear,” the pope told reporters on the plane returning from a trip to the Baltics.

The Vatican has stated its desire to reach a deal in order to stem the suffering of its flock while allowing the Church to expand in the country with fewer restrictions.

The number of Catholics in the country has plateaued with experts citing the harsh conditions and persecution as a major reason for the decline in interest.

They do, however, risk losing some of their followers after striking a deal with the Chinese government. It feared some of their flock to leave the church, seeing apostasy as preferential to cooperation with party-approved clerics.

In response to those who have opposition to the deal, the pope simply said: “Let us pray for those who do not understand.”

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