The Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, age 63, is assiduously following the wishes of the Holy Father Francis who, since his election in 2013, has manifested his decision to open diplomatic relations with China. But before there can be an embassy of the Holy See in Beijing, some serious problems must be resolved. 

The Christian presence in China has a long but broken history, shrouded by the mystery of time. Legend has it St. Thomas travelled to China from India, converted some Chinese, and returned to Meliapur on the southeast coast of India where he died. But no evidence has been found to substantiate this claim.

In 1922, Bishop Celso Costantini became the first apostolic delegate to China. An apostolic delegate is the representative of the Roman Pontiff, but he does not have the title of nuncio if he is not the dean of the diplomatic corps of the country. Although not officially a member of the diplomatic corps, Costantini became the de facto religious representative of the Pope to supervise the entire Catholic Church in China. Finally, in 1943, the Chinese government dispatched an ambassador to the Vatican.

Shortly after Mao’s revolution, in 1951, the communist government broke all ties to the Vatican and began appointing its own bishops. This new sect, dubbed the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, remains the only officially recognized “Catholic” body in the country. As a result, many of China’s Catholics – those under the authority of the bishops appointed by Rome – were driven underground to avoid persecution.

It was the year of my ordination, when one of the most important events of my priesthood took place, causing me and the entire Catholic Church tremendous sadness: Mao Tse Tung exiled all foreign missionaries from the country.

The Holy See has been anxious to restore ties with China and bring the estimated four million Catholics worshipping in secret – the so-called “Catacombs Church” – back into the light. For its part, China is happy to negotiate, but it has set terms that previous popes would have considered untenable. As foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: “China is willing to develop relations with the Vatican if the Vatican severs its diplomatic ties with Taiwan and refrains from interfering in China’s internal affairs, particularly interference in the name of religion.”

The Vatican and the People’s Republic may reach an agreement like the one with Vietnam, whereby the Pope appoints bishops in consultation with the Communist Party. As for its “internal affairs” regarding Taiwan, the Church has maintained an apostolic nunicature in Taipei since the civil war, but the nunciature’s chargé d’affaires was relocated to Turkey in 2016. The Holy See may be hoping to relocate the post to Beijing as a gesture of goodwill to the communists.

This would be a boon to the Church’s efforts to normalize relations with China, but it would also be a serious betrayal to Taiwan’s 400,000 faithful. The Catholics who worship God in “catacomb” churches are very opposed to any rapprochement on the government’s terms. They feel that Rome might betray them. 

So, while Rome may gain partial control over the six million who belong to the Patriotic Catholic Association, is it worth losing the four million who have suffered so long for the Apostolic Church?

This is not the first time the Church has experienced such a dilemma. In his dealings with the Soviet Union, St. Paul VI supported the so-called Ostpolitik , which, in the end, caused him much suffering. While he believed it was right, he took no pleasure in either dealing with the evil of the Soviet regime or opposing the heroic pastors who daily bore the brunt of the battle.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, is totally opposed to the China agreement, but Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin replied: “In the Church there is a full right to disagree and to tell one’s own criticisms, and the Holy See has a moral duty to listen to them and to evaluate them carefully,” adding, “It is legitimate to have different views over the most appropriate responses to the problems of the past and present.” 

Pope Francis, aboard the papal plane returning from a trip to the Baltics, defended China’s deal on bishops, saying he will have the final say on appointing bishops and not the Beijing government. With the recently signed agreement, which both sides have said is provisional, the Chinese government effectively recognizes the Pope as leader of all Catholics in China. Taking full responsibility for signing the agreement, the Pope said it was not “an improvisation” but a “journey.” St. John Paul II had made repeated pleas to the Catholics of China, but a complete normalization of diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican cannot happen unless reconciliation first occurs.