China’s Communist government has called on the Vatican to take “a more flexible and pragmatic attitude” in order to improve its relations with China.
On Tuesday, Wang Zuoan, the head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), said that China’s stance on improving ties with the Vatican has always been “long-standing and consistent,” adding that the country is willing to dialogue with the Vatican “based on relevant principles to narrow differences and expand common ground.
Speaking at the opening of the Ninth Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives, Wang said that China hopes “the Vatican can adopt a more flexible and pragmatic attitude, and takes actual steps to create beneficial conditions for improving relations.”
The administration of President Xi Jinping and China’s Foreign Ministry have reiterated that the Vatican must cut “diplomatic relations” with Taiwan and recognize the island as part of China. They have also demanded that the Vatican not interfere in China’s “internal affairs,” which often includes specifically Church-related questions such as the naming of bishops.
For decades the Catholic Church in China has been divided between a state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) and the so-called “underground Church,” faithful to Rome.
Mao Zedong set up the CCPA in 1958 to gain control over the Catholic Church in China, driving many of the faithful underground through the systematic persecution of all who remained faithful to Rome and would not collaborate with the government.
A Vatican document of 1988 barred Roman Catholics from participating in the sacraments of the Patriotic Church, since the association “had broken all relationships with the pope” and was “under the direct control of the government.”
Last month, China’s most outspoken Catholic Cardinal sharply criticized a potential Vatican deal with China’s Communist Party that would cede some Church decision-making to the atheist government, suggesting that such a move would betray the Church’s mission.
“You cannot go into negotiations with the mentality ‘we want to sign an agreement at any cost’, then you are surrendering yourself, you are betraying yourself, you are betraying Jesus Christ,” said Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the former Bishop of Hong Kong and China’s highest ranking Catholic cleric.
Pope Francis has showed signs of openness to work toward a diplomatic thaw with the Chinese government, something Cardinal Zen has resolutely opposed. Last year, Zen told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera that the Vatican was being naïve in its dialogue with Beijing.
“Italians in the Roman Curia don’t know the Chinese dictatorship,” he said, “because they have never experienced a Communist regime.”
A willingness to move toward a compromise with China would really be an “unconditional surrender,” Zen lamented.
A better approach, the Cardinal suggested, would be “to encourage our persecuted in China to be brave.”
In its 2016 Annual Report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said that the Chinese government “continues to perpetrate particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” USCIRF once again recommended that China be designated as a “country of particular concern,” based on what it termed “systematic, egregious, ongoing abuses.”
“The Chinese Communist Party officially is atheist and took steps in 2015 to ensure that Party members reject religion or belief,” the report stated.
Throughout the year 2015, Chinese authorities used the pretext of building code violations to target houses of worship, particularly churches, as illegal structures, the report added. “By some estimates, the number of cross removals and church demolitions totaled at least 1,500, and many who opposed these acts were arrested.”
On Tuesday, Wang called on local Catholic communities to “lead Catholic personnel and followers in line with the CPC [Communist Party of China] Central Committee, with Chinese President Xi Jinping as the core.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter Follow @tdwilliamsrome