Since the Vatican and Beijing broke diplomatic ties in 1951, the Church in China has been divided into official state-sanctioned Catholic places of worship with bishops appointed by Beijing, and underground churches whose leaders are secretly appointed by the Vatican but not officially recognized by the Chinese Communist Party. CCP authorities have harassed and detained underground clergy, and the dueling bishoprics have caused confusion and division among the laity. The pope has not been allowed to visit China or even, until recently, to enter its airspace.
Vatican leadership suspects that the schism is one reason for Catholicism’s stagnant growth in China. There are about 10 million Chinese Catholics (though estimates vary), a number that has remained relatively steady in recent decades while the number of Protestant Christians has risen dramatically, reaching up to 100 million by some counts. That was a major motivation for the deal, which has been under discussion since 2014.
Under the terms of the agreement, which has not yet been fully made public, Pope Francis has recognized seven party-appointed bishops, while Beijing has in turn recognized a portion of the formerly underground Vatican-appointed ones. In the future, the Holy See is expected to reach a compromise with Beijing over new appointments, in an arrangement that gives the CCP some control over who is selected.
But then last month, Shao Zhumin, a Vatican-appointed bishop of the eastern city of Wenzhou, who remains unrecognized by Beijing, disappeared. It was the latest in a string of detentions that Shao has faced in recent years. Some Chinese Catholics had hoped that such arbitrary arrests, a relatively common occurrence for underground priests, would end after the agreement was reached.
“The government has not given up its hope for control. They want the Church to be another tool of the state,” Paul Mariani, a Jesuit priest who researches Chinese religious policy at Santa Clara University, told me. “That’s common in China, across labor unions or NGOs—they all have to fall under the party at some level.”
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Shao’s disappearance has, so far at least, seemed to vindicate the deal’s naysayers. Critics have accused the Vatican of giving in to an atheist, communist government with a long history of persecuting the faithful. Joseph Zen, the retired cardinal of Hong Kong and a fierce critic of the CCP, called the agreement “an incredible betrayal,” accusing the Holy See of “giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves.”
Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, told me, “Watching a major world faith come to an agreement with an authoritarian government that’s notorious for repressing religious freedom and to effectively cede some authority to that government sets a very worrying precedent.”