Did Pope Francis misunderstand the situation in China? That is certainly not how it appeared on the plane bringing him back to Rome from Estonia several days after he had signed the agreement between the Holy See and Beijing.
“The first drafts were prepared in my office,” he said. “We discussed the issue. I shared my ideas and the other participants also discussed it before going ahead.”
It was a matter of “two steps forward, one step back, two forward and one back” throughout the dialogue, the pope added, illustrating his detailed knowledge of the file.
Moreover, while clearly backing his collaborators — particularly his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin — Francis also took personal responsibility for the agreement.
“It was I who signed it. I am responsible for it and it is not an improvisation,” he said.
Nevertheless, the Holy See is not naive about the strong opposition that the China-Vatican agreement has caused.
In fact, it is clearly understood in Vatican circles that this opposition is also linked to a recent American offensive against Pope Francis, of which the Vigano affair is the most visible symptom.
In this context, it is no surprise that former White House adviser, Steve Bannon, has recently showed interest in China by mobilizing several million dollars to attack Beijing’s “crimes.” Bannon is one of the directors of the Rome-based Dignitatis Humanae Institute, which is attempting to organize opposition to the pope.
Tensions among Chinese officials
The United States has, in effect, turned China into its principal adversary. In this respect, China’s 60 to 100 million evangelical Christians have become a powerful lever for the USA, much more so than its 12 million Catholics, even though a section of the clandestine Church in China has always maintained links with American Catholicism.
Nevertheless, burnt by the 19th century “gunboat diplomacy” that enabled western powers to dismember it, China has long feared foreign interference in religious affairs. Hence, its desire to control religious leaders.
The Vatican has not minimized the tensions that exist among Chinese officials.
It is true that the central government has validated the agreement. But this has also led to opposition from within the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which until now has controlled episcopal appointments, as well as from local authorities that control the dioceses.
This is also undoubtedly what needs to be understood with respect to the recent arrest of several Chinese bishops, such as at Yueqing in Zhejiang province, where Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou, who was recognized by Rome but not Beijing, was taken away by officials of the Bureau of Religious and Ethnic Affairs on Nov. 9.
Evidently, the conditions for these “political discussions” that take place in a hotel and last for several days are completely different from the harsh internment of Uiyghur Muslims in re-education camps in Xinjiang in western China.
The officials who took Bishop Shao away even checked the most convenient time for him to leave. Nevertheless, such practices clearly impact on the Church’s pastoral work.
Officially in line with the overall policy for controlling religions, the temporary removal of bishops also ends up damaging the dialogue between Beijing and Rome.
Pope Francis clearly understands that this dialogue will not transform the situation of the Chinese Church overnight.
But it has ended a schism that has lasted since 1957.
Here, China has made an enormous concession by recognizing that the pope has the final word in the appointment of bishops, something which was previously regarded as unacceptable “interference” in Chinese internal affairs.
By lifting the excommunications on the bishops appointed by Beijing, Francis has also removed the reason that has led many priests and faithful, claiming to be faithful to Rome, to refuse to recognize those bishops.
However, the pope also understands how difficult it is to put an end to years of clandestinity.
In fact, this was the point on which he concluded his comments in the plane on Sept. 25.
“We pray for the suffering of those who do not understand or who have experienced many years of clandestinity,” he told journalists.