The following commentary was written by Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, former editor-in-chief and president of America, and now distinguished professor of ethics and global development at Georgetown University and a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. It was published in America magazine Feb. 12.


News of the Holy See’s possible rapprochement with China’s communist government on the appointment of bishops has aroused charges of a betrayal of the “underground church” and fears of the abandonment of Catholics who, for decades, have suffered for the sake of their fidelity to Rome. Western journalists have been too easily swayed by misleading accounts circulated by those opposed to an entente between Rome and Beijing.

Too many Catholics, Americans in particular, still see the situation of Chinese Catholics through the lenses of the Cold War. Most foreigners are ignorant of the changes that have affected Chinese Catholics in recent decades. They also ignore the transformation in official Catholic attitudes toward communism and in favor of the enculturation of the Gospel in local cultures.


In light of these developments, the new Vatican initiatives on the nomination of bishops and the promise of normalization of the church’s life in China are not new departures, but the outcomes of long trends in the life of the local church and of Vatican-Beijing relations. Here are some developments to consider.

Joint appointment of bishops: On and off, the Vatican and Beijing have been jointly appointing bishops for more than 20 years. Sometimes there have been problems, especially when lay leaders of the government-controlled Patriotic Association wanted to reclaim power within the process, but the trend has been for joint appointment.

At its best, diplomatic coordination has led to joint appointments for new bishops to succeed to the leadership of both registered and unregistered diocesan churches. Even before joint appointments, most government-selected bishops quietly offered their pledges of fidelity to the pope. The joint appointment of bishops illustrated the common interest both Rome and Beijing have in the unity of Chinese Catholics.

Reconciliation between what St. John Paul II called the “One Church-Two Faces” policy in China was the goal of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter to the Chinese church. It appealed for church unity and unity among the bishops for ecclesial and theological reasons. But it is likely that Pope Benedict also regarded unity as a prerequisite for normalization of the church’s status within China.

Intermingling of Catholics in daily life: What most outsiders do not understand is how closely Catholics from registered and unregistered churches are already interacting, especially in cities. Candidates for the priesthood study together in the same seminaries. Parishes often share the same quarters, with underground Catholics worshipping in the official parish church at their own times, and pastors of the two communities share rectories.

Anti-communist Catholicism: Time for aggiornamento? It has been 55 years since St. John XXIII’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris” (Peace on Earth). At the time of its publication, the letter’s most controversial affirmation was its opening to dialogue with political parties of the left, including the Italian communists. Pope John himself penned the line that distinguished between adherents of an errant ideology and the ideology (Marxism) itself. “Pacem in Terris” cleared the way for a new relationship with the communist governments of Eastern Europe and the re-establishment of the Catholic Church in the East.

But even with shifts in the policies of the People’s Republic, that opening to communists has not been accepted by intransigent elements of the underground church. Might it not be time to apply John’s teaching to relations with the Chinese government? Why should China be an exception to world Catholicism’s aggiornamento in church-state and political relations?

Chinese culture and the Gospel: Pope Francis has his own theological rationale for a rapprochement with Beijing, whose policy is to “Sinicize” religion — that is, to give it a Chinese character. A cornerstone of his apostolic exhortation “Joy of the Gospel” is that each culture produces its own unique synthesis with the Gospel. The forward movement on relations that has Pope Francis’ support indicates he is inclined to accept the idea of Chinese Catholicism rooted in the world’s most ancient civilization.

Because Francis is a Jesuit, moreover, who has sponsored events with the Chinese in honor of the 17th-century Jesuit and Servant of God Matteo Ricci, whose methods of evangelization respected Chinese culture, Beijing has reason to trust the genuineness of this pope’s initiatives. Ricci is revered in China still. Why, then, should the Catholic faith in China be tied to the forms of 19th- and 20th-century Roman Catholic culture while enculturation takes place in other cultures across the world?

Tension in the underground: Finally, one factor that led to Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter was tension in the underground church. There were internal rivalries and factions in various dioceses. Bishops held onto office beyond retirement; sometimes they re-asserted their authority after a younger bishop had been appointed. For the benefit of Catholics themselves, the church had and still has an interest in establishing order in China’s local Catholic churches.

With these tensions internal to the underground church in mind, it is easier to comprehend why the Holy See seems to regard the ecclesial common good as requiring unity among the Chinese bishops and diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Beijing. There is a belief in Rome that locals could be assisted in dealing with these troubles with an apostolic delegate or nuncio residing in Beijing.

Over the years, there have been frequent reports that Beijing and Rome were close to concluding an agreement, but no breakthrough occurred. So people should not let their hopes, or their fears, grow too high. China has been tightening regulation on nearly every group, and every week formerly trusted political leaders fall in anti-corruption campaigns that consolidate power at the top.

Nothing is certain. But all the same, the Holy See seems to be preparing for the day when the Catholic Church, united once again, will enjoy a normal existence in the China of today and tomorrow.


The views or positions presented in this or any guest commentary are those of the individual publication and do not necessarily represent the views of, Catholic News Service or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.