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Opinion Pope Francis is giving in to the Chinese Communist Party

Chinese Catholics pray at a morning Mass in the Xuanwumen Catholic Church in Beijing on Jan. 30 (Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy magazine.

The Vatican appears to be seeking a rapprochement with China, almost 70 years after Beijing broke ties. But the Catholic Church has little to gain and much to lose from mending ties with the Communist Party-ruled country. And Pope Francis should be under no illusions: Any agreement the two sides may strike will be entirely on Beijing’s terms.

This month, the Vatican asked two underground Chinese bishops to step down in favor of their Beijing-approved counterparts, one of whom the church in Rome had already excommunicated. Then yesterday, the Vatican indicated it would recognize the legitimacy of seven Communist Party-approved bishops. The moves come after several years of statements and other indications from Pope Francis that he hopes to mend ties with China. The Vatican currently maintains diplomatic relations with the self-governed island of Taiwan.

A split has long divided Chinese Catholic clergy into those appointed by the state-sanctioned Catholic church formed in the 1950s and those loyal to the pope and secretly ordained as part of an underground Catholic movement. The Vatican believes that the decline in the Catholic population in China, now about 10 million (although estimates vary) after peaking in 2000, is due to tensions over this split. Pope Francis hopes that reconciliation will re-energize the Church there.

Beijing, meanwhile, fears foreign sway over its population. In any deal to restore relations with the Vatican, the party would almost certainly insist on having the final say over which bishops are appointed.

Such a capitulation of spiritual authority would damage the Catholic Church in China for years to come. How do we know? Because this very scenario has played out before — in communist Hungary.

After the communist takeover of Hungary in the late 1940s, the new government imprisoned the fiery anti-communist Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, the church’s leader there. Finally, in 1971, the cardinal was permitted to leave Hungary under Pope Paul VI’s policy of Ostpolitik, by which the Church engaged with eastern European communist governments to try to improve the lives of Catholics there. But even before his departure, the Communist Party had already started selecting bishops as they saw fit, and the Church never raised any real obstacles to the practice after that.

The dissident cardinal, who lived until 1975, excoriated the Church for giving in to communism. He became both a symbol of Catholic opposition to communism and a vocal critic of the Vatican’s policy of appeasement.

But in the long run, Ostpolitik didn’t help the Hungarian church, which fell into a slow decline.

“You can see what the consequences were in communist Hungary,” said Piotr Kosicki, a historian of modern Europe at the University of Maryland. “There were just fewer and fewer Catholics. There was a lot less energy in a church run with the Communist Party pulling the strings.”

Kosicki thinks the same would happen in China if the Vatican lets Beijing appoint bishops.

“Instead of having 9 million Catholics in China, there will be 3 million,” said Kosicki. “Or maybe there will be 9 million but most of them will just never go to Mass, which is what happened in Eastern Europe.”

Pope Francis hasn’t forgotten the lessons of Hungary — but the lesson that concerns him is the rise of a vocal critic within the Church. Recently, he reportedly said he hopes to avoid “another Mindszenty case.”

But that figure may already exist in Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong. Zen has been increasingly outspoken, accusing the Holy See of “selling out” to Beijing.

It’s not hard to see why opposition to Vatican appeasement would be widespread. Guo Xijin, one of the underground bishops asked to step aside, serves in a region in southern China that has about 80,000 Catholics. Of those, 70,000 are affiliated with the underground church, according to Xi Lian, a professor of world Christianity at Duke Divinity School.

To underground Catholics who have at times suffered fines and even imprisonment to remain loyal to the pope, the move to sideline one of their bishops is “a slap in the face,” Lian said.

Fenggang Yang, a scholar of Chinese religion at Purdue University, says that it could even “lead many underground Catholics to refuse the reconciliation.”

For Beijing, restored relations with the Holy See would be a real windfall with no downside. The Vatican is the only remaining sovereign state in Europe that has diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The Communist Party has long sought to isolate the democratic island on the international stage, and it has stepped up those efforts since Taiwan elected a Beijing-skeptic president two years ago. Losing the Vatican would be a major blow for Taiwan and at the same time increase China’s prestige.

Beijing doesn’t appear particularly interested in giving anything up in return, Yang said. China “has given very little or nothing to get closer to the Vatican’s position, such as accepting the underground bishops as legitimate bishops” or dissolving the parallel state-run church, Yang said.

Thanks to a new set of strict religious regulations that took effect Feb. 1, making it far more difficult for the underground church to continue to operate in the gray area it has carved out for itself in the past several decades, China has the Church in a vise.

In restoring relations, “the Chinese government has very little to lose, and the Vatican has a lot more to lose and very little to gain,” Lian said. “The Vatican risks losing its spiritual authority and dampening the spirit of the Catholics.

That’s a price the pope shouldn’t be willing to pay.