Catholics in China
Peter Signorelli
December 28, 2000


Memo To: Jiang Zemin, President of the People’s Republic of China
From: Peter Signorelli
Re: Toward a Beijing-Vatican Rapprochement

Dear Mr. President:

A year ago this month, Pope John Paul II called upon all Catholics to pray for reconciliation between the Patriotic Catholic Association of China and the country’s so-called “underground” Catholic Church, which remains in loyal union with the Roman Catholic Pontiff. As a Catholic I responded to his call, and I thought that his desire might be realized this year. During his July trip to Italy, your colleague, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, affirmed that “numerous contacts” were taking place between Beijing and the Holy See and that “China will be open to the Pope” -- once two basic problems are resolved. You yourself already had indicated the same perspective in your interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Serra during your March 1999 trip to Italy. The “two problems,” you advised, and Zhu Rongji reaffirmed, are the conditions that your government considers to be essential before any movement on the diplomatic front may take place: The Vatican must end diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognize Beijing as the legitimate government of China; in addition the Vatican must agree to not use religious issues to interfere in China’s internal affairs.

With regard to the first condition, Mr. President, it is well known that both Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, and Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Secretary for Relations of States at the Holy See, have stated that the Vatican acknowledges the real government of China is in Beijing and that it immediately would transfer the papal nuncio from Taiwan to the mainland if Beijing would receive him, and if your government would acknowledge the obligation for China’s Catholic bishops to be in full communion with the Holy See.

The Pope would be remiss in his duties as shepherd of the worldwide Catholic flock if he did not insist that no bishop be ordained without the approval of the Holy See. Where the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association rejects communion with the Vatican, it denies the authority of the Holy See over the universal church. Its insistence on “One Association, One [bishops’] Conference,” repudiates the fundamental Credo of the faith, which all Catholics recite every Sunday at Mass: “We believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” As all Catholics profess that our Church was founded by Jesus Christ on the apostle Peter, bishops not in union with the successor to Peter are illicit pastors of the Catholic Church.

Please understand, Mr. President, that to assert that the Patriotic Catholic Church can not arrogate such power to itself is not “meddling” in internal Chinese affairs. I quote Archbishop Tauran on this point: “I do not see how a relationship that is religious in nature such as that which exists among Catholics and the Pope could constitute interference in the internal affairs of a country or bring into question the sovereignty and independence of the state.” The Archbishop emphasizes that there is no conflict in being a Catholic in loyal communion with the Pope and the teachings of the Magisterium on one hand and a loyalty to the government of China.

I urge you to re-examine this issue, especially in light of the lengths to which the Vatican is willing to go in its efforts to seek reconciliation of the so-called “underground” Catholic Church with the Patriotic Catholic Association. Early this year, the Italian daily Il Messaggero reported that the Vatican has submitted the nomination of bishops to the government in some countries (Vietnam, for example) for approval and is willing to consider such an arrangement with your government. This followed a report from last year in the Beijing United Daily News that China would be willing to allow the Pope to choose and ordain new bishops for the Church in China, provided that Beijing has final approval over the appointments. I urge you to also note that Pope John Paul II has approved the ordination of some bishops undertaken by the Patriotic Catholic Association. The most recent occasion was in May of this year, when the Holy See explicitly and publicly announced the validity of the ordination by the Patriotic Church of Zhao Fengchang as Bishop of Yanggu.

Certainly Beijing and the Vatican are closer to an agreement than ever before, but perhaps there is some combination of old habits and perceptions mixed with inertia that holds back further progress. You, of course, are aware, Mr. President, of the campaign that recently was waged to link charges of religious persecution in China to resistance of U.S. approval of MFN status for China, as well as opposition to your country’s entry into the WTO. (For your information, we at Polyconomics vigorously opposed such provocative and inappropriate linkage. Nor did the Vatican engage in that strategy.) However, now that those issues are behind you, we are looking for a demonstration by Beijing that it is amenable to the reconciliation of the Catholic flock in China and that it will take the initiative on a diplomatic rapprochement with the Vatican.

The Chinese nation has no reason to fear spiritual hunger. In fact, its best interests will be served by letting that hunger find its satiation in areas outside the secularized realm.