After decades of silence between the Vatican and Beijing, Pope Francis has reached out to China’s Communist leaders to negotiate over the status of China’s party-led state church, the ordination of priests and the appointment of bishops. But many Chinese Catholics are rightfully sceptical whether their concerns will be considered.

Catholic cathedral in Central Beijing

Decades after normalising its relations with all of the world’s major countries, China is finally negotiating over rapprochement with a unique kind of “empire”: the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican is the last European state that does not maintain official relations with Beijing. For the first time, a rapprochement seems within reach after the two sides recently struck a preliminary agreement over the appointment of bishops.

It should not be a surprise that China and the Holy See have difficulties seeing eye to eye. Their views on a range of political and social issues differ fundamentally. Yet in the end the structural similarities between the Chinese leadership and the Vatican may have created an even bigger impediment to a rapprochement. Both belief systems are centred on a charismatic, historic founding figure. Both emphasize a strong sense of community in highly choreographed mass gatherings and both govern their respective dominions of over a billion ‘subjects’ each through a rigid bureaucracy and tight disciplinary control.

After Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic, he viewed the Catholic Church, with its hierarchic set-up and anti-communist political agenda, as a threat to the authority of the Communist Party. In the 1950s, Beijing broke off relations with the Vatican, established a Catholic state church under the Party’s tight control and cut off millions of Chinese Catholics from Rome’s influence. For six decades since then, the Holy See has refused to recognise the “Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association” (CPCA) and supported a network of loyal-to-Rome underground churches that have been faced with persecution by Chinese authorities.

What’s in it for Beijing and Rome

Now the Vatican is pushing for a thaw. Since the autumn of 2015, Pope Francis has made various efforts to meet with China’s party and state leader Xi Jinping and to reach out to Chinese Catholics. While the integration of the CPCA into the Roman Catholic Church may be a long way down the road, the Holy See might aim to establish at least some kind of ‘working relationship’, its main goal being a compromise over the ordination of bishops.

Many of the 110 bishops serving in China’s state church were approved ex-post by the Vatican. Yet eight of them never received the pope’s approval. Another 30 pope-approved bishops in the underground church are not recognised by China’s authorities. Pope Francis hopes to reach an agreement in the coming months during the on-going year of the “Jubilee of Mercy”, which is seen by the Church as a period of universal pardon and remission of sins. This year, which ends on 20 November, would be the perfect occasion to celebrate the unity of the church and to pardon ‘illegitimate’ bishops.

Beijing might also be considering a few good reasons for an agreement. A positive gesture from the pope could prompt underground Catholics in China to join the monitored state church. For the People’s Republic, a rapprochement could also bring an important diplomatic victory. The Vatican is the last European state that still maintains diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Communist Party’s historic rival. Fearing the domino effect that the loss of its prestigious ally might have on its foreign relations in Latin America and Africa, Taipei has already launched a charm offensive towards Rome.

Believers and clergy have a lot to lose

Yet while both ‘empires’ consider their options, many Chinese Catholics, especially those in the underground churches, are distrustful of a Sino-Vatican rapprochement. If the Holy See and Beijing sign an agreement on the ordination of bishops, they might get to settle their administrative differences, but that would not address the concerns of believers.

If the pope were to recognise the CPCA to whatever degree as part of the universal church, China’s underground Catholics would face an uncertain future as well as deep moral questions: Should they now join the state-sanctioned church which many had risked their lives to not be a part of? Or should they stay underground and thus break from the dogma of the one universal, united church? Many might feel robbed of their free choice between the politically controlled state church, and the illegal yet more authentic underground communities.

Many members of the official Chinese clergy are already under great pressure having to ‘serve two masters’. A rapprochement between their government and church leaders in Rome would make it even harder to reconcile their beliefs with the Party’s stance on issues such as family planning or the death penalty and to communicate their positions to their congregations. And it is hard to believe that the Party would tolerate any grey areas for dissent. Its leaders are well aware that churches can serve as catalysts for protest movements and that they played critical roles in the demise of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe. It is hard to imagine that Beijing would allow state-church clergy to freely travel to Rome for training and indoctrination, or let the pope hold a public service in Beijing.

All the issues the pope wants to have a say in – the ordination of priests, the appointment of bishops, preaching, teaching and doctrinal matters – are ultimately about gaining influence in China’s society. And if there is one thing that the Chinese Communist Party cares about, it is to keep the influence of foreign organisations, including religious ones, as small as possible. Pope Francis will need solomonic wisdom as he enters negotiations, as any ‘deal’ that gives legitimacy to the CPCA would inevitably strengthen Beijing’s authority over Chinese Christians.