Catholic Churches in China Should Be Independent of Vatican, Official Says


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Sunday Mass in the state-approved Xuanwumen Catholic Church in Beijing on Dec. 4.

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European Pressphoto Agency

BEIJING — A top Chinese official suggested that Catholic churches in China should be run independently of the Roman Catholic Church, the state news media reported on Friday, striking a nationalistic tone as the country negotiates a possible deal to improve relations with the Vatican.

At a meeting with bishops on Thursday in Beijing, Yu Zhengsheng, a senior Communist Party leader, endorsed the notion of a self-governed Chinese Catholic church, according to Xinhua, the state news agency. He said spiritual leaders should work to promote the “good virtue of patriotism” and “adhere to the principles of independence and self-management,” Xinhua reported.

China and the Vatican are in talks to heal a rift that began when the party, after taking power in 1949, expelled Catholic missionaries and required Catholics to worship in churches overseen by the state. While the negotiations have gained momentum under Pope Francis, the two sides are still grappling with issues such as who has the authority to appoint bishops in China.

Religious leaders and scholars were divided on the significance of Mr. Yu’s remarks, which came after a three-day meeting of Catholic bishops representing state-run churches from across the country. Mr. Yu is one of seven members of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the group of politicians who govern China.

Some said the willingness of Mr. Yu to meet with Catholic leaders signaled a genuine desire for reconciliation with the Vatican. Others saw his embrace of party talking points as a worrisome sign.

Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher in Beijing at Renmin University of China who has closely followed Vatican affairs, said that despite Mr. Yu’s emphasis on patriotism, the government seemed less critical of the Vatican over all at the meeting.

“You can see that the two sides are walking in lock step,” Mr. Sisci said. “There is growing agreement and growing optimism.”

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Yu Zhengsheng, a senior Communist Party leader, with the new leaders of Chinese Catholic groups in Beijing on Thursday.

Credit
Yao Dawei/Xinhua, via Associated Press

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has worked to build a closer relationship with China, snapping photos with Chinese bishops in St. Peter’s Square and sending greetings to President Xi Jinping.

In recent months, there have been signs of progress and renewed hope about a deal. But there have also been setbacks. Last week, for example, the Vatican expressed frustration when a bishop who was not appointed by the pope was present at the ordination of two new Chinese bishops.

Before the meeting of bishops this week, the Vatican had said it was looking for “positive signs” from Beijing. On Tuesday, Wang Zuoan, head of China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs, said, “We hope the Vatican will take practical actions to create favorable conditions for the improvement in ties.’’

Leaders of so-called underground churches, which operate without the state’s approval, have expressed unease about the negotiations, worried the Vatican might make too many concessions to China. A third or more of China’s estimated nine million to 12 million Catholics worship in underground congregations.

Dong Baolu, a bishop at an underground church in the northern province of Hebei, said the comments made by officials this week indicated that the party would not give up any real power.

“China will go about its religious affairs by its own standards, and that’s a rebuttal of the Vatican,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Dong, who did not attend the meeting in Beijing, said he was in a difficult position as the leader of a church not recognized by the Chinese government.

“I don’t want to compromise my religious beliefs,” he said. “I want to obey the church’s and the Vatican’s leadership.”

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