China Expert Criticizes ‘Limp’ Vatican Deal with Communists

A man peeks through a main entrance gate of the Nantang Catholic Church in Beijing, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016. China's head of religious affairs said that Beijing is willing to have constructive dialogue with the Vatican but stressed that Catholics should "hold up high the flag of patriotism" and adapt …
AP/Andy Wong

Missionary Father Bernardo Cervellera says that the Vatican is yielding way too much in its forthcoming diplomatic deal with the ruling Communist Party in China, which risks being “limp.”

“From the vague information that is going around,” said Father Cervellera in a Tuesday interview with the Catholic online site Crux, “China—as stated by the director of Religious Affairs—simply wants to continue its policy of nominating bishops and the pope would just have the function of blessing what they decide.”

Cervellera, who is also director of, criticized the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Paolo Parolin, for suggesting that “although we know that this is a bad deal, better a bad deal than no deal at all.”

Many Catholics “believe that this would mean handing the Church over to the Chinese government,” the priest said. “These are understandable and sharable concerns.”

A better proposal comes from Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen, “who sees firsthand all the problems that the underground Church has,” Cervellera said. Zen recommends waiting for a deal “where we ask China for more.”

Father Cervellera also took issue with the ambiguity surrounding the proposed agreement between the Vatican and the Chinese government, which raises a series of “concerns.”

There is a problem with the Vatican’s communication, he said. “Instead of saying ‘we are making a deal,’ snippets come out saying that all bishops will be recognized. Naturally this creates difficulties for the Chinese Church because everyone wants to know whether all the bishops, including the illicit (Chinese government appointed) ones, are included in the deal and if those not recognized by the government are included, meaning all the underground bishops.”

“Because otherwise the deal risks being ‘limp,’” he said.

The present conflict, he added, “is practically a battle for investitures, which took place more than a thousand years ago,” referring to the 11th-century showdown between Pope Gregory VII and the German King Henry IV over who had the right to appoint ecclesiastical officials in the Catholic Church.

In the interview, Father Cervellera said he had been receiving information piecemeal regarding the details of the forthcoming agreement, including the worrisome final authority of the Chinese “bishop’s council” to overrule eventual objections by the pope to a given candidate, allowing them to proceed “as if nothing happened.”

“It’s risky because it puts in the hands of the government the possibility to choose all the bishops it wants depending on the criteria it has always had,” he said, “that is, choosing the most malleable, controllable ones and making them into an instrument of their politics instead of working for the evangelization of China.”

Moreover, the danger of Rome reconciling with all illicitly ordained bishops, he said, is that some in fact are not loyal to the Church.

“In secret they say that they follow the Catholic faith, but in public they do what the government wants,” he said.

“How can faithful trust these bishops? How can they trust these ambiguous bishops, even if they become official? Benedict XVI once called them ‘opportunistic,’ and there are many. Even among the seven illicit ones, there are a few opportunistic ones,” he said.

The faithful in the underground Church are freer without the constant control of the Patriotic Association, Cervellera said. “One only has to see what is happening in the official Church, which is controlled completely. There are cameras in the parish offices, in the corridors, the police are always there. This is because China greatly fears religions,” he said.

The priest said that the Chinese government fears the Catholic Church more than any other religion, and thus is anxious to procure greater control over it.

“A member of the Communist Party once told me this: ‘We fear the Catholic Church because you are united,’ he said. ‘If something happens to a Catholic, immediately all the other Catholics in the world talk, speak, act! We are very afraid of your unity,’” he said.

Cervellera also said he fears what will happen to the underground bishops, who have been faithful to Rome for so many years, often with great personal suffering.

The underground bishops are the biggest problem in dialogue between China and the Vatican, since the Chinese government does not want to recognize them, because they don’t trust them. “These people who have been martyred, who have been imprisoned, who have tried to follow the Vatican’s indications and not belong to the Patriotic Association in order to be free for the faith are now set aside,” he said.

“You say, let’s make a deal, but a deal in order to obtain what?” he asked. “We lose half the Church, we put the nomination of the bishops in the hands of the government.”

In a deal where the Chinese government chooses the bishops and the pope has to give his blessing, what is to be gained?, he asked. “We put the bishops in the hands of the government; we don’t give the underground bishops a chance to be recognized… it seems like a complete loss. Why make a deal like that?”

Father Cervellera advanced his conjecture that in the present instance, the Vatican is acting out of fear and that is why it is caving in to Chinese demands.

The Vatican “is afraid that the Chinese Ministry of Religious affairs, as it has always promised, will appoint many bishops without papal approval, at least in twenty dioceses,” he said.

“I imagine that the Vatican is worried that if the number of basically excommunicated bishops grows so much, it might become even harder to build something,” he said.

He said that the Vatican may also fear that in the future things will get worse. “So, it’s better to take this deal, even if it’s bad, as a lesser evil,” he suggested.

The real danger is not so much a schism in the Chinese Church, Cervellera said, since the underground bishops are faithful to Rome and will obey.

The danger is rather that under government control, the Catholic Church in China “becomes a national church of the state.”

Even now, he said, “when I go to China and meet an official bishop, they don’t want to talk, because they say people from the Patriotic Association are there, so we can’t talk, we can’t talk. I go to talk to a bishop in Peking, and he says, no, we can’t talk, because the place is bugged.”

“We’re practically in an open-air concentration camp,” he said.

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