The head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, Bishop Stephen Chow, is set to embark on his first official visit to China since 1994. However, a spokesperson has indicated that he is unlikely to meet with representatives from the mainland’s “underground” churches due to continuing strains between Beijing and the Vatican over the governance of the country’s Catholics. Chow will be accompanied by two senior church officials and the trip follows an invitation from his Beijing counterpart Joseph Li Shan. The mission of the Hong Kong delegation is to “promote exchanges and interactions” between churches in mainland China and the worldwide Catholic community.
Catholic churches in mainland China must register with and operate under the state-affiliated Catholic Patriotic Association, an organisation overseen by the party’s United Work Front Department and led by Li, that the Vatican does not recognise. Chinese Catholics are split between those who attend state-sanctioned churches and those who go to so-called ‘underground’ churches affiliated with the Vatican. According to the Chinese government, there are more than 5.5 million Catholics in the country. However, organisations outside of mainland China, such as the Pew Research Center and Hong Kong’s Holy Spirit Study Centre, put the Catholic population closer to 10 million, taking into account those who do not attend the “official” churches.
While there are no formal diplomatic relations between Beijing and the Vatican, the two sides came to a provisional agreement over the appointment of bishops in China in 2018. The contents of the agreement have never been made public, but it reportedly allowed the Vatican to officially appoint bishops in China, while China has also recognised the pope as the supreme leader of the Catholic Church. However, Sino-Vatican relations remain strained, despite the extension of the 2018 agreement amid unresolved issues concerning the Catholic faith in China, such as the appointment of bishops and creation of dioceses.
In March, China’s new Premier Li Qiang told the National People’s Congress it was necessary for the party to “actively guide religions to adapt to socialist society” and said the process had been taking place gradually. Churches on the mainland that resist state regulations usually meet in secret with those running what are known as “underground churches” running the risk of fines and jail time.
Professor Tobias Brandner, associate director of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, described Chow’s trip as “overdue”. He added that there had been official visits by the Protestant church in Hong Kong during the intervening period. While the invitation had come from the Beijing diocese, instead of the Chinese government, Brandner said it would only amount to a “difference in ritual”, given Li’s close ties with the government.
Mok Chit-wai, a commentator on Hong Kong religious affairs, expects Chow’s trip to have more of a symbolic meaning than an actual effect on Sino-Vatican ties. In the current international climate, Mok said it would be to Beijing’s advantage to maintain working relations with the Vatican, which is a sovereign state in Europe. However, he added that Sino-Vatican relations remained strained, despite the extension of the 2018 agreement amid unresolved issues concerning the Catholic faith in China, such as the appointment of bishops and creation of dioceses.
In November last year, the pope issued a statement expressing “surprise and regret” at Chinese authorities’ move to make Peng Weizhao the auxiliary bishop of Jiangxi, a diocese that the Vatican does not recognise. The Vatican statement read that the appointment had “not taken place in conformity with the spirit of dialogue that exists between the Vatican parties and the Chinese parties” and had run against the Sino-Vatican agreement. This month, Beijing announced a new bishop for Shanghai, the country’s biggest Catholic diocese. The Vatican said that appointment was also made without its approval.