Just as the long-standing rift between the Vatican and China seems to be about to heal, Beijing jailed popular Catholic bishop, Guo Xijin. Bishop Guo was detained shortly before Easter for declining to celebrate mass with another bishop, one who had received government approval.
The Catholic Church in China has faced an interesting situation since the 1950s. Catholic Bishops are required to be approved by the government. However, the Vatican has for many years been ordaining priests in secret, which is why some parishes have dual clergy—wherein underground and state-sanctioned priests and bishops simultaneously function.
Underground bishops such as Guo Xijin are the reason for the deep rift between Beijing and the Vatican. Bishop Guo is not recognized by the state-controlled Catholic Church, but is, however, recognized by the Vatican. As a compromise with Beijing, Bishop Guo was asked to step down by the Vatican. He is currently no longer detained, but has yet to resume his duties.
An agreement is currently being sought between Beijing and the Vatican, one that could put an end to the decades-long rift. However, the detention of Bishop Guo does not bode well for the freedom of China’s Catholics. It looks far more likely that the government would enforce suppressive measures on the underground church, with perhaps even attempts to abolish it completely.
Recent government policies hint that underground Christian church activities, both Catholic and Protestant, may be coming to an end. These activities have been tolerated by Beijing for decades, but on February 1, a new law took effect. This law makes government regulations on unofficial religious activity stricter. On March 16, a directive was leaked, with orders for officials to look into the underground activities of Beijing’s Christian churches.
But what is most significant is an announcement last week from the government that religious affairs will now be under the United Front Work Department, an organ of the Communist Party under the auspices of the Central Committee.
Professor Xi Lian, who teaches world religion at Duke Divinity School, says, “The party is in some ways distrustful of the religious affairs bureau for fear that some people in that agency may have the kind of training that makes them more open to or sympathetic with different religious groups. But now the United Front is going to take over and impose the iron will of the party.”
Every part of life in China is governed by both the government and the Communist Party. Whereas government bodies have more accountability, party actions have little to no transparency.
The United Front Work Department has been used by the party to influence every aspect of life in China, which can only mean more control over Christian churches. Anyone who refuses to comply faces certain marginalization.
Analyst Peter Wood, who has studied the United Front Work Department, says, “The point of having administrative control over religious groups in China is to ‘deconflict’ an organization from competing with the party. The point isn’t to provide services—it is control, redirection, and deconfliction.”
The new directive is causing many Chinese Christians to be concerned, since they will now be under more party scrutiny and influence than ever before.
The possibility that underground churches would be disbanded or forcibly made to toe the line is not impossible. In the past few years, President President Xi Jinping has acted to eliminate dissent and to exert control over every part of everyday life in China, removing the grey areas that made room for freedom of expression, however limited. Since President Xi has been in power, there has been massive internet censorship, a crackdown on human rights lawyers, high tech surveillance and ideological controls in private businesses and universities.
The upcoming agreement between Beijing and the Vatican could possibly include provisions that would allow the Communist Party to choose bishops in the church, but would give the Vatican the power to disapprove these choices. However, considering the direction that President Xi has been heading towards, this seems unlikely, especially since the party has always viewed religious activity with particular distrust.
Professor Lian says, “Not only is the deal a terrible one, the Vatican has chosen the worst time to do it—at a time when Xi Jinping is becoming the new emperor, when the party is cracking down so harshly. I really have a hard time understanding why the Vatican still clings to this completely unrealistic hope of striking a deal that will benefit the Church, and striking a deal that the Communist Party will honor.”
The Catholic Church has desired to end the rift with Beijing because having the underground church and state sponsored church at the same time has been confusing for Chinese Catholics, and has hampered the church’s effectivity in China. Several Popes have sought to heal the rift, even before Pope Francis’ time. Having one church, they feel, will serve the faithful better.
However, Bishop Guo’s arrest and detention are signs that Beijing will not allow many concessions to give the Catholic Church freedom to operate in China as it sees fit, but that the party will enforce more and more compliance.