Mission to China today After the Agreement Beijing-Rome

The Beijing-Rome Agree-ment leaves us with many unanswered questions

We search for answers. 

Beijing and Rome are in dialogue. They even signed an agreement which we consider as positive and historical although limited in content and time. Limited yes, but the communiqué that promulgated the news on the agreement stated that both partners look hopefully to the future and to an ongoing institutional dialogue for the benefit of both sides. The recent unexpected brief encounter in Munich on Feb. 14, 2020 of the two ministers of Foreign Affairs of the PRC and the Vatican could be seen as a signal that such an institutional dialogue is not to be excluded[1].

Even though we all knew since 4 years that negotiations were going on, the agreement came still suddenly and many Catholics were unprepared. But if one considers the preceding decades of opposition between Beijing and Rome, this reversal from the old confrontations to dialogue was indeed a sudden evolution. No wonder that some members of the church community did not understand the reason for signing the agreement. We learn that even some members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wonder why the Party-leadership changed so suddenly its attitude to Rome from opposition to dialogue. Now there is disagreement in both Rome and Beijing. Moreover, it now appears that, while Pope Francis had taken a generous and daring step by signing the agreement, Rome has since then been waiting in vain for the expected positive follow-up on the side of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Catholics who supported the dialogue and the agreement are now confronted with the many questions asked by those who opposed the agreement. We do not pretend to know the answer to these questions. In this lecture we search for answers.

Firstly: as Catholics we are more directly concerned with the Catholic Church. Even though the large majority of Catholics in and outside China clearly support the dialogue of Pope Francis rather than the confrontation which others seem to promote, the harsh critical language used by some Catholics – f.e. betrayal by Pope Francis of the church in China – was unheard of before and causes concern. Rather than pointing an accusing finger against the pope and his team should we not rather try to better understand the pastoral principles and attitude which motivate Pope Francis in dealing with China? Perhaps we should also try to understand better the attitude of his predecessors towards China. This may help us to fully appreciate the option for dialogue of Pope Francis. Let us attempt to do that.

Secondly: we wonder whether Rome and Beijing are able to properly address and answer the issues at stake during their dialogue. Are they ready for an open dialogue? We think that it will take time for both the PRC and the Catholic Church to grow more and be able to do what they both profess to be doing already: i.e. dialogue with all ideologies and religions in the world. Both have declared this to be their priority. They also took significant steps in line with dialogue each in its own field, but they both seem to be still in a learning process towards becoming truly partners in dialogue. That learning process slows down the dialogue and may explain some of the existing problems. How will they deal with this?  How does Pope Francis deal with it?

And thirdly: the bad news and the reports on what happens these days to the church in China worries everybody who cares for true freedom of religion. As we have supported the dialogue and the agreement from the beginning, we wonder how we can explain this to those of our friends who opposed the dialogue.

In the conclusion we express the hope that Pope Francis continues the ongoing dialogue with the PRC as well as dialogue inside the church community and we explore how we also, at our own level can contribute to the dialogue.

For fifty years three immediate predecessors guided Pope Francis to the way of dialogue

What motivated them?

What motivated Pope Francis and his negotiating team to enter into dialogue and sign an agreement with the PRC against the explicit advice – request? – of some in the Catholic community? This is the question which we Catholic faithful should more reflect about. It’s far too easy and too simplistic to point an accusing finger saying that the agreement was signed because “Rome was ill-informed, misled and cheated”. Anyone who followed the initiatives of Rome over the past decades knows that the initiative of Pope Francis to dialogue is entirely in line with what all his predecessors of the previous 50 years did. In 1970, at a time when Mao Zedong was trying to destroy the Catholic Church in China during the Cultural Revolution (1965-1975), Pope Paul VI went out of his way during a visit to Hong Kong to send friendly greetings to China and also in 1970 (well before the China-visit by President Nixon) during a speech at the FAO in Rome he showed his sympathy for the entrance of the PRC as member of the United Nations. [2]  Pope John Paul II was Polish. His relationship with Communism in Poland is well-known to everybody but as pope in Rome, as early as 1982 he openly pleaded to set up all needed structures to enter into dialogue with the PRC.[3] Pope Benedict XVI wrote an historical letter[4] to the church in China in which he, on one side, made the limits of any dialogue with China quite clear but at the same time he also confirmed openly that dialogue with China, including dialogue with civil authorities was necessary. It was therefore predictable and entirely normal that Pope Francis would continue in the same line which so many immediate predecessors had followed during 50 years. Not to do so would raise questions why he stopped that clear movement towards dialogue prepared by three predecessors.

We should rather rephrase our question and ask: what motivated these predecessors of our present pope and also Pope Francis himself to insist so stubbornly on initiating dialogue with China at a time when there was little or no hope for a positive response from China? To answer that during fifty years three outstanding and exceptionally capable popes were all ill-informed and cheated and even betraying the church in China by seeking dialogue with China is too simplistic. The obvious answer, we surmise, is that for these popes seeking dialogue is the duty of the head shepherd of the Catholic Church in this Post-Vatican II era. It is the task of the Vicar of Christ, to continue today the Mission of Christ in a way responding to the needs of our time i.e. to promote the new Vatican II insight about that Mission by preaching a New World: doing away with the existing injustice, violence, division; supporting the poor, the oppressed and those who suffer; promoting a totally New World marked by justice, peace, unity, mutual trust and love. The popes realize that they cannot do this by continuing the old Middle-Age policy of seeking influence and power by aligning with some political world powers and confronting others because that precisely would be contrary to the Mission of Christ. Instead they wish to realize this only by showing and living an attitude of service, peace, friendship through dialogue with all religions and all ideologies including non-believers and atheists.

Rome does not know in advance whether their partner will honor the agreements made in the dialogue. Their trust is based on the fact that China accepted the principles of the UN and of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on f.e. respect for Human Rights, Freedom of Religion. China has guaranteed to respect these by including it in the official Constitutions of the PRC.[5]  On this basis the family of nations has welcomed China as a member, trusting that China will keep its promises. If any member offends regulations it is warned by the organization itself. Pope Francis shows to China the same trust.

The popes were also aware that promoting dialogue with all ideologies in the world…including communism, atheism etc…was for the church a Great Leap Forward taken by Vatican II. They understand therefore that some Catholic faithful and priests, even some bishops have not been able to catch up with this pastoral approach strongly promoted by a big reverse in the pastoral of the church. Yet if the pope would not promote dialogue that precisely would betray Vatican II. If we do not take into account this basic option of the popes to make dialogue a priority, then we are bound to misinterpret the China policy of Pope Francis today.

Messe Kathedrale Taiyuan  Foto Maria Lozano

The pastoral approach of the pope is marked not only by a resolute option for dialogue but that option is combined with still another option namely: respect and understanding for those who, because of doubt in their own personal conscience, have not yet been able to catch up with the pope’s option for dialogue with communism. He allows time for persons to grow. We will elaborate on that here below. But let us first reflect on the fact that also institutions and countries – as the Catholic Church and also the PRC – need time to grow.

Beijing and Rome still need time to be able to do what they both proclaim as their goal:

to be internally united & open to dialogue in mutual respect with all ideologies.

Both Beijing and Rome are confronted at home with followers who block the dialogue that is going on. We will not be surprised about this if we remember that during 400 years the mutual relation between Rome and Beijing was not at all characterized by dialogue but by confrontation. There was the Rite Controversy (17th-18th century) and the implication of the church in the Unequal Treaties (1840-60), the drama of the Boxer Rebellion (1900) etc…All these caused a total lack of mutual trust and led even to confrontation between China and the Catholic Church during the Qing Dynasty which grew even after the PRC was established (1949). The confrontation reached its peak only decades ago during the PRC’s Cultural Revolution (1965-1975) which was nothing less than a vicious attempt to destroy and eradicate the Catholic Church in China.

The PRC had until then isolated itself from the family of nations. It suddenly changed that trend only two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution and after Mao Zedong’s death (1976) by the Open Policy promulgated by Deng Xiaoping (1978) by which China unexpectedly declared itself open to exchange, cooperation and dialogue with nations, religions and institutions of all different ideologies.  That was a total reversal of China’s attitude which had existed for decades, even centuries.

The Catholic Church from its side had only ten years earlier done the same during the Vatican Council. Until the French Revolution the church was isolated because it had become more a political power than a family of brothers and sisters in Christ. And when it lost its power during the French Revolution it isolated itself by condemning all new trends of thought and government.[6] But then, during Vatican II (1962-65) it reversed its own isolating trend when, also quite suddenly, it opened itself to dialogue with the World. No wonder that the attempts towards dialogue between Beijing and Rome and the breakthrough of the Agreement on 22 Sept. 2018 caught many Catholics and members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) unprepared. Even the leadership of the CCP and also the head shepherd of the universal Roman Catholic Church had, in such a short time, not been able to assure the support of all their followers to reverse the Beijing-Rome antagonism of past centuries into trust and openness which is required for genuine dialogue.

Signing this initial agreement is undoubtedly an important, even historical step on the way of dialogue but it is not enough to make Rome and Beijing into true partners in dialogue, able to bridge their century-old disagreements because that presupposes mutual appreciation, trust and friendship and these relationships need time to grow. Only then can such crucial issues be efficiently be dealt with as f.e. for the PRC, an atheistic country, to show full respect for the true religious identity and content of Catholic faith and for the Catholic Church to give to Caesar that what is due to Caesar. In another lecture[7] we called Beijing and Rome “two wounded partners in dialogue” and we cited the historical dramatic events that caused the wounds which even today still need time to heal. Now we indicate other reasons why the dialogue is so demanding and why the two sides do not yet succeed in becoming true partners in dialogue.

For the Catholic Church to enter into dialogue with atheistic China is entirely in line with Vatican II teaching. Dialogue – inside the church as well as with outside entities — is what the church of Vatican II and the encyclical Ecclesiam Suam [8] of Pope Paul VI promote so     emphatically.  But one wonders whether the Catholic Church today is truly the church of Vatican II as it likes to call itself. True, after Vatican II and after the encyclical Ecclesiam Suam it has developed an open attitude of respect and friendship with Jews, Buddhists, Moslems and other religions and even with atheists. But can we truly say that the church community itself is internally so open and ready to tackle in dialogue some of the critical issues that lie on the table since decades if not centuries? Some reactions against the Beijing-Rome Agreement as well as reactions after recent internal Catholic Church activities confirm that this is not the case. Would it then not be more correct to state that some Catholics have not fully caught up with Vatican II and that therefore we should admit that the church is still growing towards becoming the Church of Vatican II? This is one reason why the Beijing-Rome dialogue slows down.

Summer Priest House Sanyuan 2019

With terms of core socialistic values on facade

The PRC has come out of its previous isolation by joining the United Nations (Oct 25, 1971) and after its Open Policy decision (December 1978) it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001and proclaimed itself to be in open dialogue with any ideology and religion in the world. By these decisions China accepted to execute some drastic changes in the country’s practice of politics, economy, human rights, religious freedom etc. As a result, it even calls itself no more Communist China but PRC: a socialist country with Chinese characteristics. But is it so evident and clear that all members of the CCP fully accept this new identity? Would it not be more correct to state that the PRC is also growing towards becoming what it proclaims to be…namely: a socialist country with Chinese characteristics, in dialogue with all different ideologies and religions in the world? The fact that the PRC has not yet reached this is also one reason why – as we surmised above – so little progress was made after the Agreement was signed.

To openly admit that the two partners still need to grow is not a complaint nor an accusation. It is also not an acknowledgment of failure. It is rather an honest assessment of the present state of both partners by admitting that they did not (yet) achieve what they had hoped to. The assessment implies in fact the proud recognition by both partners that initiating the dialogue is in itself an achievement. To cover such a long distance is in itself a success. After all one of the predecessors of Pope Francis was Pius XI who, in response to events of world politics of his time, authored the strongest condemnation ever of Communism by the church in his encyclical “Divini Redemptoris” (1937). And President Xi is successor of Mao Zedong who tried to destroy the Catholic Church of China by the most violent persecution ever, during the Cultural Revolution (1965-1976). Both are now in dialogue, “Seeking the Common Ground” yet deeply aware that their initiative to dialogue is equal to taking a big leap forward and therefore they are not surprised that some of their followers have trouble to understand what’s going on[9]. Not surprised, yet concerned that they must convince all followers to unite and join them in pursuing the final goal of this dialogue which does not lie in the near but rather in the far future….and it includes: learning the ability to listen to each other, to reflect upon what the other says and the will to communicate in truth, mutual trust and respect. And again: to learn this means to grow and growth takes time.

The common enemy of the two partners in dialogue lies inside themselves namely: remnants of the fanaticism that existed in the past and also ignorance about the other partner. These two block every progress for mutual understanding. It is fair to believe that both partners, when initiating the dialogue took a long-range view far into the future, way beyond the present limited agreement and in line with what they patiently wish to achieve. They both have to allow time for themselves and their followers to unite, to catch up with the need to dialogue and to learn the courage to do what their option for dialogue-with-all-ideologies-in-the-world requires.

The attitude of Pope Francis SJ to faithful who disagree and to his partner in dialogue:

Attention for gradual growth — pastoral of mercy — respect for man’s discernment in conscience.

We must try to understand the long-range vision of the Jesuit Pope Francis. Once upon a time — during the Rites Controversy (17th-18th century) — Emperor Kangxi blamed Catholic Faith as not fit for China. Ever since then Catholic faith has carried this historical blame like a trauma. Until today Chinese civil authorities constantly humiliate Catholic faithful by reminding them that they believe in a “foreign religion” – not fit for China — with the connotation as if a Chinese Catholic is not a good patriotic Chinese citizen. Once there was even a saying in China: for every Chinese baptized a Catholic there is one less Chinese citizen. Catholic faithful silently carry this unjustified blame like a humiliating trauma. Since more than two centuries they hope to stop this prejudice. Their hope lies now in the dialogue with China undertaken by Pope Francis. The fruit of his long-range vision and dialogue is nothing less than ridding the church of China of this blame by obtaining official recognition (permanent citizenship) for Catholic Faith in the atheistic People’s Republic of China.

In the “Pastoral Regulations” of June 2019 the Holy See clearly hinted to the bishops and priests of the “unofficial community” (underground) in China that it intends to continue the ongoing dialogue in spite of their doubts and even objections because to liberate the church in China of that trauma would be a historical breakthrough for Catholic Faith in China. And also for the PRC it would mean progress because it would receive worldwide recognition for this historical step in efficiently practicing religious freedom. Pope Francis patiently applies his own pastoral approach to achieve this goal. He believes in the ability for gradual growth of individual persons in their relationships with others as well as in the possibility also for gradual growth of communities, associations, countries responding to events and signs of the times.

This idea of gradualness through phases of growth is a new insight of human sciences which help us to better understand the human person in his dynamic development and existential experience of time. Negative, critical experiences of his past – or of a country’s history for that matter — are not necessarily to be seen as negative events that condition him (or the country) for the rest of his future but rather as potentialities and challenges that can cause further growth. Man is what he is but he is not yet what he can become by growing through his interactions with events and challenges.[10] The principle of gradualness of growth is based upon the concept that man is a historical creature. He grows and develops himself day by day by his many freely-made options; that’s how man discerns and accomplishes what is morally good in phases of growth. The same can be applied to communities, associations, countries. It applies to the interactions — dialogue — between the Holy See and the bishops and priests of the church in China as well as to the interactions between the Holy See and the PRC.

Aditionally to the Jesuit Pope Francis’ attention for gradualness in growth of relationships of persons is his high priority given to decisions in conscience made by individuals after discernment. This priority became clear in June 2019 when the Holy See promulgated its Pastoral Guidelines concerning the civil registration of clergy in China (June 28, 2019). These Guidelines were meant to assist the priests and bishops of underground communities in China who were ordered by civil authorities to register and sign that they will follow the decisions and instructions issued by the CCP and/or the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA). Many priests and bishops made it known that in conscience they cannot sign such a promise. The Holy See acknowledges that many pastors are deeply disturbed at being obliged, in fact forced, to register. The document states that the Holy See has reasons to continue the dialogue with the PRC but also makes it very clear that the Holy See does not intend to force anyone’s conscience and calls on the government to do the same. On one side they openly give the reasons why the Holy See favors dialogue with civil Chinese authorities and implicitly but clearly suggest that Chinese bishops and priests are invited to do the same but they also add: “The Holy See understands and respects the choice of those who, in conscience, decide that they are unable to register under the current conditions. The Holy See remains close to them….” It means that for Pope Francis the command of man’s conscience stands above regulations of church and/or civil authorities[11].

     Messe Kathedrale Taiyuan  (Foto Maria Lozano

That statement is basic for the future of the ongoing dialogue. Respect for the discernment and decisions made in conscience by the individual together with a firm belief in and openness for gradual growth in the visions of the highest leaders of the church in China as well as civil authorities of the country are at the basis of Pope Francis’ dialogue with the PRC. His respect for gradual growth allows him to remain patiently open for his partner in dialogue, the PRC to grow more and more united towards Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. Respect for decisions taken in conscience after discernment enables him to dialogue with unofficial (underground) bishops, priests and faithful in China who remain unable to join him in dialogue with the PRC. This makes of Pope Francis the ideal Head Shepherd guiding his church towards internal unity and at the same time a reliable, honest partner in dialogue with the PRC.

Is the situation of the church in China today worse than before the Agreement?

We are very worried about the news we receive these days about the church in China.

Even those who defend the line of dialogue of the pope will admit that what happens today to some Catholic dioceses, parishes and faithful in China is the opposite of what we expected as fruit of genuine dialogue. We are embarrassed but we owe it to our friends to formulate an answer to the many questions with which we are confronted. In the course of 2019 the activation of the agreement has not answered our expectations. By signing the agreement Pope Francis had taken a crucial step in order to get dialogue with China on the way, but – for the time being – China has not answered positively. True, two bishops were appointed and ordained – one in Wumeng (Inner Mongolia), one in Handan (Hebei) – but both of them had already been appointed by the Pope five years earlier. Their ordination cannot be seen as the fruit of the agreement. We had hoped that a number of “unofficial (underground)” bishops would be allowed to join the (still illegal) Chinese Bishops Conference. That would be an important step towards making this “Chinese Bishops Conference” legal. But only one underground bishop has been accepted as member so far. We also had expected that Beijing and Rome would agree on the question whether there are now in China 97 dioceses — according to the present planning of civil authorities — or even 35 more dioceses (according to the old situation recognized by Rome). It is commonly known that Rome agrees with the government’s plan because otherwise the appointment of bishops cannot proceed regularly and that is precisely the main purpose of the agreement of September 2018. Why then did China not take any initiative on this issue? The opinions among Catholic observers are divided. Some say that there are indications that the true reason why the activating of the agreement is paralyzed lies in the internal tensions between some powerful political figures and entities inside China.

Meanwhile more disturbing news reaches us from China. Friends tell us that the situation for the church after the agreement is even worse than before. Religious instruction to young people is forbidden. At the entrance of some churches visitors are warned “Entrance forbidden for young people below the age of 18”. But is it not a human right of parents to decide about the education – including religious education – of their children? More crosses are removed from churches and more church- and religious buildings are taken down as ‘illegal’. On December 1, 2019 new rules were enacted in Wenzhou Diocese “forbidding clerical personnel to participate in funerals in homes and no more than 10 family members of the deceased are allowed to read scriptures or sing hymns in a low voice”.

We also wonder what is really meant by “sinicization” of all religions in China? Will this policy indeed – as is promised – respect each religion’s own liturgy and theology? And if so, why then should ‘unofficial’ bishops who wish to join the Bishops Conference, be obliged to agree on establishing an “independent church” which is against the theology of the Catholic Church?

Messe Kathedrale Taiyuan 2014     


  1. By promoting dialogue popes showed their respect for China, its people and culture

Over a period of more than half a century four popes of the Catholic Church have taken remarkable initiatives in order to initiate dialogue with the PRC seeking the common ground. Doing so they show their admiration and respect for China as a great country, for its people and culture. Pope Francis continues in this line and his dialogue reaches a peak with an initial and limited agreement between Beijing and Rome. We consider this as a first step on the way of an historical dialogue which may take years, generations.

  1. The dialogue meets with problems. Dialogue partners need time to overcome them.

We believe that both Beijing and Rome are aware of the difficulties which they, two former opponents, encounter as they try to engage in true dialogue. They must learn to listen and understand the other partner well by doing away with their own age-old prejudices and fanaticisms, reflect upon what their partner said in order to respond correctly and communicate frankly in mutual trust. That can be achieved only through a slow learning process. They need to take a long-range view and be aware that they will need time in order to realize the goals they have in mind. By recognizing and respecting Catholic Faith as this is done in other countries China itself would be respected in the family of nations as a nation where freedom of religion is truly practiced. By living peacefully in harmony with atheism and with other religions in the PRC the Catholic Church would realize the ideal set by Vatican II.

  1. Pope Francis’ policy responds efficiently to the needs of the Church and of the PRC

Pope Francis believes in the gradualness of growth that goes on constantly in man as well as in communities and countries as they interact and exchange. He adopts a pastoral of mercy by showing unconditional respect for the decisions of man taken in conscience after discernment. This makes him into the Pastor Bonus (Good Shepherd) who understands and wisely guides those faithful in his flock who are still in the process of catching up with the Great Leap Forward which the popes took in implementing Vatican II. From his belief in gradualness of growth and in spite of a history of mutual confrontations he takes time to patiently build up a new friendly relationship with the PRC, the biggest country and the oldest culture in the world.

  1. But new regulations in the PRC cause concern. There is need to intensify dialogue

Newly promulgated regulations of Beijing have created a feeling in and outside China that the situation for the church in China today is worse now than before the agreement was signed. We are concerned and much embarrassed, for we owe an explanation to our friends. More so because some good friends had opposed the line of dialogue which we supported. Only increased and intensified communication and dialogue between Beijing and Rome can avoid that more harmful misunderstandings will develop. Whether or not more dialogue will happen on that high level, we in Verbiest Institute of Leuven University believe that, in order to help us understand the logic of these new regulations – and avoid that some succeed in reviving the mutual opposition of the past — institutes in China and abroad should urgently promote more activities of personal encounter, of cultural exchange as well as programs of academic research to clarify the most complex and critical issues of the dialogue.

  1. Programs of exchange & joint academic research should accompany the dialogue

The priority goal of Verbiest Institute KULeuven is: to help in building a new relation with China. For this purpose, it developed a Program of Exchange and Cooperation & a Program for Academic Research. Friendly delegations of bishops and priests and also of civil authorities were invited from China; others went from Belgium to China. Scholars from China and the West, Catholics and non-Catholics met in 13 International Conferences to exchange their joint research on the church in China in the past and today. More than 50 volumes, in English and Chinese, have been published on this research. There is a need to increase this kind of activities.

Religion & the Rule of Law is a topic that in our Research Program received priority attention. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, Verbiest Institute KULeuven organized each year a 3-day Forum on Religion and the Rule of Law with speakers from Asia and Europe[12]. Scholars in the West who study the relations China-Rome stress the need for more research and exchange in this field, more particularly on the topic of Freedom of Religion as defined in Art 36 of the Constitutions of the PRC. We wonder whether Religious Freedom as defined in that article means the same as what we understand when we speak or write about it. According to the article Chinese citizens are obviously free to believe what they want but the second paragraph of the article was amended in 2018. We wonder whether there are now limitations and restrictions on the practice of religious freedom[13]. Can we still say that Chinese are free to practice their faith? And if not how will we be build, as we intend, a relation based on equality and mutual respect? That question lies as a huge boulder on the winding and mountainous road of our dialogue. Can that boulder be removed? Or can we go around it? Dialogue should tell us. But even if the answer is negative, then the church will still continue to dialogue on that issue. But not only the church! Other, bigger organizations – as the UN – should and will continue their own dialogue on the same issue. At stake is not the question: who wins or who loses. A final agreement reached through dialogue means growth for all those who participate in it.

Jeroom Heyndrickx cicm

     Verbiest Institute

Catholic University Leuven (Belgium)

[1] On Sept 22, 2018 the Vatican published a communiqué concerning the signing of a Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the appointment of Bishops. The agreement was signed by Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, Undersecretary for the Holy See’s Relations with States and H.E.Mr.Wang Chao, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, respectively heads of the Vatican and Chinese delegations who had met for some time in order to discuss Church matters of common interest and to promote further understanding. The signing was the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement and was agreed following a long process of careful negotiation. The agreement concerns the nomination of Bishops and also creates conditions for greater collaboration at the bilateral level. The communiqué stated that there was a shared hope that this agreement will favor a fruitful and forward-looking process of institutional dialogue and may contribute positively to the life of the Catholic Church in China, to the common good of the Chinese people and to peace in the world.

[2] The pope did this during a visit on November 16, 1970 to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in Rome on the 25th Anniversary of its Institution. During his speech the pope added in paragraph Nr 5 a phrase which worldwide was understood as referring to the PRC. He said: We hope that soon the circle of your family will widen and that the peoples that are now absent from this meeting may also sit down at your table so that finally all may contribute together to the unselfish goal. (With the Taiwan delegate sitting in the audience in front of him the pope could hardly be more specific).

Barely 18 days after this FAO speech (on Dec. 4, 1970), Pope Paul VI was on a pastoral visit to seven countries in Asia. The Vatican had made efforts to be allowed to make a 3-hour stopover in Hong Kong (which was then still a colony of Great Britain). The planned stopover became known by the media which spread the news that the pope intended to send a message to the PRC, especially to the Christian faithful who were then suffering during the Cultural Revolution. Church authorities of Hong Kong were delighted with the visit but the media reported that British authorities and civil authorities in neighboring countries were not enthused and even requested that the explicit greeting to the PRC and to Christian faithful in China should be cut out from his prepared speech. The visit took place. The pope arrived at the Government Stadium in Happy Valley where 40.000 Catholic faithful (almost double the capacity of the stadium then) awaited to join in the Eucharistic celebration. I stood with 50 concelebrating priests only 5 m. away from the Holy Father as he delivered his homily ending with a friendly message of which – after the cutting — remained only a vague greeting to the Chinese people…Speaking about himself as a pilgrim of love the Pope expressed this message: “What do I say and why do I come? To sum it up in one word: Love”. …And he added: “Christ is a teacher, a shepherd and loving redeemer for Chinese too.” “While I am saying these simple and sublime words I have around me – I almost feel it – all the Chinese people wherever they may be…” HWe all remember how Pope Paul VI spoke that short phrase very loudly emphasizing each word, putting his message of friendship more in the tone of his voice than in the words which he was not allowed to say. But the message sounded clear over the loudspeakers of the stadium… to ..  all ..  the ..  Chinese ..  people ..  wherever ..  they ..  may ..  be.

[3] Cfr The Speech of Pope John Paul II in Rome, on Monday October 25, 1982, to the participants at the Symposium to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Matteo Ricci in Beijing, paragraph Nr 7: We trust that we can remove all existing obstacles and that we will find the appropriate way and adequate structures to open the dialogue with China and keep it going so that all Chinese faithful feel at home in their home community as well as in the church.

[4] Cfr “Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China”, 27 May, 2007. Concerning the relationship of the Catholic community to the State, Benedict XVI in a serene and respectful way recalls Catholic doctrine, formulated anew by the Second Vatican Council. He then expresses the sincere hope that the dialogue between the Holy See and the Chinese government will make progress so as to be able to reach agreement on the appointment of Bishops, obtain the full exercise of the faith by Catholics as a result of respect for genuine religious freedom and arrive at the normalization of relations between the Holy See and the Beijing Government.

[5] Cfr Article 36: paragraph 1: Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. Paragraph 2: No state organ, public organization, or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.

[6]  On December 8, 1864, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception the Holy See under Pope Pius IX issued the Syllabus of Errors (Syllabus Errorum), a compilation of what the Catholic Church believed to be errors in the philosophical and political realm.

[7] Cfr Jeroom Heyndrickx cicm — Beijing & the Holy See — Seeking the Common Ground — Two Wounded Partners in Dialogue. In China Heute XXXVIII (2019), Nr. 3 (203), p. 175-185.

[8] Cfr Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (His Church) by Pope Paul VI August 6, 1964

[9] “Divini Redemptoris” encyclical by Pope Pius XI on March 19, 1937 strongly condemning Atheistic Communism. During the years after Pope XI until Pope John Paul II (elected in 1978) there was already step by step a fundamental change in relations between the Holy See and Communism: first under Pope John XXIII and Vatican II, then under Paul VI and his Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (about dialogue). This evolution echoed further in the church in papal speeches and encyclicals but also by local hierarchies, groups of militant lay Catholics, prominent theologians, theology of liberation etc. In spite of this big change in attitude inside the church, one must admit that many Catholics still think and speak of Communism in the terms of “Divini Redemptoris” using the terminology used to condemn Stalin as if nothing since then had changed. Vice versa for many Chinese Communist Party members in China the name “Pope” is immediately connected with imperialism, colonialism, Unequal Treaties as they learned at school and during the Cultural Revolution. These are the obstacles of the past which dialogue must overcome before a relationship and general atmosphere of true partners in genuine dialogue can come about.

[10] Cfr Roger Burggraeve sdb, Prof. em. Moral Theology, Faculty of Theology and Religious Sciences KULeuven, in Collationes, 46 (2016), nr 3, pp. 243-266 De Verborgen Veerkracht van Fragiele Liefde, stapstenen voor een christelijke groei-ethiek in het licht van paus Franciscus’ ‘logica van de pastorale barmhartigheid’ (Amoris Laetitia).

[11] Cfr Roger Burggraeve sdb (Prof. em. Moral Theology,  Faculty of Theology and religious Sciences KU Leuven) in Asian Horizons Vol. 12, nr 2, June 2018, pp. 655-670: Invoking the Hidden Resilience of Vulnerable Love; The fundamental aspects for an ethics of growth in the light of Pope Francis’ ‘logic of pastoral mercy and discernment’ in Amoris Laetitia

[12] Cfr Twice VI KULeuven welcomed a delegation of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARS) and organized an Exchange & Information Session at the Belgian Ministry of Justice to discuss Freedom of Religious as defined by law in Belgium. In 1995 VF co-organized with Leuven University a Forum on Religious Freedom as defined in the law of countries in Europe and Asia.

[13] On March 11, 2018 the thirteenth National People’s Congress of the PRC amended Article 36 Paragraph 2, of the Constitution by adding “The leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” to the end of “The socialist system is the basic system of the People’s Republic of China.”


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