Vatican-China diplomacy on thin ice again?


SupChina follows up with Ian Johnson about recent developments on the Vatican’s path to a deal with China.

Since the Sinica Podcast with Ian Johnson on warming Vatican-China ties was recorded in mid-November 2016 (it was published on December 29), there have been some indications that progress will not be smooth. On Christmas Day, Reuters noted resistance to the Vatican’s diplomatic efforts. Pei Ronggui, an 81-year-old retired Chinese bishop who was recognized by the Vatican, stated his firm opposition: “There’s no way there can be an independent [Catholic] Church [in China] because that is the opposite of the principles of the Catholic Church.” Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, a member of the Vatican Commission for the Church in China, said that “the biggest problem” still ahead is the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. A state-sanctioned organization of Chinese Catholics, it takes orders from the Communist Party rather than the Vatican.

As a follow-up on the podcast, SupChina contacted Ian with a few questions on the new developments and where things might be headed.

Jeremy: Do you sense that there has been a step back since November, at least from the Vatican side, or is this just friction that is to be expected?

Ian: As I mentioned on the podcast, if you had asked me a year ago about the chances of a deal, I would have said remote to nil. The fact that the Vatican was pushing this so hard surprised me, and so in a way I’m not surprised that problems are cropping up. The basic situation is this: Beijing doesn’t really need a deal. It can walk away any time it wants. It’s Rome that craves the deal, but it is probably becoming apparent to the Pope that many Catholics will feel betrayed if they strike a deal.

Jeremy: How do you think talks between the Vatican and the CCP might affect the treatment of “underground” Catholics (i.e., members of churches that operate without the state’s approval)?

Ian: I think they will come under pressure to join the official church. If there is a deal that gives the official church the Vatican’s recognition, then the underground church will feel pressured to join.

Jeremy: Can you give us an idea of what’s in your upcoming book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao?

Ian: The new book is about China’s religious revival. It started after Mao but has really gained pace in the past decade or so. Many Chinese are dissatisfied with the radically secularized and commercialized society around them and are searching for new values and ways of living. Many of these touch on religion — the traditional religions like Taoism, Buddhism and folk religion, but also Christianity and New Age ideas as well. After this, I have a couple of books in mind but am still mulling them over…

Ian Johnson is the author of a book on civil society and grassroots protest in China (Wild Grass) and another on Islamism and the Cold War in Europe (A Mosque in Munich). See more about him on his website, and follow him on Twitter at @iandenisjohnson.