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China’s Catholic Leviathan: Jesuits and the Sino-Vatican Agreement

On October 22nd, the Holy See Press Office announced that the Vatican has renewed its agreement with China’s state officials – the new expiration date of the agreement is October 22, 2022. The Vatican states:

The primary objective of the Provisional Agreement regarding the appointment of Bishops in China is that of sustaining and promoting the proclamation of the Gospel in that land, restoring the full and visible unity of the Church. In fact, the primary motivations that have guided the Holy See in this process, in dialogue with the Government leaders of that country, are fundamentally of an ecclesiological and pastoral nature.i

The agreement was renewed during one of most turbulent eras of China’s Catholic history, and opinions range from buoyant optimism to alarm and distrust. While from the Vatican’s point of view the agreement provides the Holy See with long-desired authority over the election of bishops, there is no mystery regarding the communist party’s current sense of empowerment to eradicate the “underground” Catholic community using its usual methods. The press release notes that the agreement’s objectives include “promoting the proclamation of the Gospel in that land [and] restoring the full and visible unity of the Church.” In truth, the only part of these two aims that China’s authorities agree upon is “restoring the full and visible unity” of China’s Catholics by erasing the “underground” community, who do not acquiesce to state regulations. No one, it seems, is more optimistic about China’s Church than the Holy See, insisting even in its press release that “there will be no more illegitimate ordinations.” And I suspect that no one is more cynical regarding this optimism than China’s Catholics themselves. Even so, the “prophets of doom,” as Pope St. John XXIII employed the term in his opening remarks of the Second Vatican Council, continue to disregard the many salutary fruits bearing forth in China’s Catholic Church.

The Chinese have two sayings to describe the cornucopia of contradictions expressed about the situation of the Chinese Church: Mitian dahuang and Luanzhong youxu, meaning, “Deceits fill the heavens” and “Within chaos there is order.” I have listened to online talks given by experts on China’s Catholics that contradict the realities I have observed with my own eyes, and I have read media reports describing state persecutions in areas I have just visited that had no such events. There are persecutions, more than I care to mention, but there are also flourishing Catholic communities in China that would blanch if they saw the hyperbole and misinformation of some media sources. Despite the misunderstanding and misrepresentation in the media, much of what we hear about the Church in China is accurate.

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