Believers take part in a weekend mass at an underground Catholic church in Tianjin
Believers take part in a weekend mass at an underground Catholic church in Tianjin November 10, 2013. Courtesy of REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

'Underground' Catholics complicate pope's hope of better relations with China

BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) Every winter Sunday in the Chinese village of Youtong, hundreds of Catholic faithful brave subzero temperatures to meet in a makeshift, tin-roofed church. Tucked away in a back alley in a rural area of Hebei, the province with China's biggest Catholic community, the gatherings are tolerated — but are illegal in the eyes of the local authorities.

These worshippers are among the millions of "underground" Catholics in China who reject the leadership of the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which proclaims itself independent of Rome. The underground Catholics are solely loyal to Pope Francis.

Chinese Christians flock to church for Mass on Christmas Eve in Beijing (Dec. 24, 2013).

The Vatican, though, is seeking better relations with communist China — which is making some underground Catholics wary and concerned. Some are not ready to accept reconciliation with a Chinese government that has persecuted them for years. They now represent the biggest challenge to Francis' hopes of developing a long-lasting entente with Beijing, according to Catholic Church officials and scholars.

Pei Ronggui, an 81-year-old retired bishop who was recognized by the Vatican, made plain his concern about the CCPA as he prepared to take confessions in a bare room at the makeshift church in Hebei.

"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," said Pei, who spent four years in a labor camp after a 1989 government raid on an underground Catholic service in Youtong. "They (the Chinese government) have to change; if they don't change, then the pope cannot agree with them."

Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong, is also openly critical of a soft approach by the Vatican to Beijing. "A bad agreement — such as one that imposes the underground church to submit itself to the government — would make these underground people feel betrayed by the Holy See," Zen told Reuters.

A senior Vatican prelate told Reuters that, while the Holy See appreciated Zen's concerns, the situation in China "is not black and white and the alternative (to an agreement) is a deeper schism in the church."

The pope is keen to heal a rift that dates back to 1949, when the communists took power in China, subsequently expelling foreign Christian missionaries and repressing religious activities. Since then, the People's Republic of China has refused to submit the local Catholic Church to Vatican authority, and the Vatican has refused to recognize the PRC.

Since taking office in March 2013, Pope Francis has vigorously supported talks aimed at rapprochement.

Chinese Catholics on all sides — underground and in the state-sanctioned community — number an estimated 8 million to 10 million and are overall loyal to the pope. Dozens of interviews with clergy and faithful show both sides wish for a positive outcome to the current talks. Nevertheless, many, especially among the underground Catholics, remain skeptical that the talks will lead to any substantial improvement in their religious freedom.

A draft agreement on the thorny issue of how to ordain bishops in China is already on the table, as Reuters has previously reported. The Vatican is keen to prevent Beijing from appointing new bishops who have not been recognized by the pope. There are about 110 bishops in China. About 70 are recognized by both sides; 30 just by the Vatican; and eight just by Chinese authorities.

The negotiations do not at present focus on whether Beijing should recognize the 30 or so underground bishops who have been approved by Rome but not by the Chinese government, according to church officials, Vatican officials and Chinese sources familiar with the talks. Nor do they focus on the role of the CCPA, a political body that was created in the 1950s to supervise Catholic activities in China and is considered illegitimate by the Vatican because it runs counter to the belief that the church is one and universal.

"The biggest problem is still ahead. And this is the Catholic Patriotic Association," said the Rev. Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian missionary and member of the Vatican Commission for the Church in China who closely follows the negotiations. "I have no impression at all that China is willing to give in."

A source with ties to the Chinese leadership hinted at the government holding to a firm line, telling Reuters: "There is a saying: 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do.' Catholicism needs to adapt to Chinese ways."

In a statement this week, the Vatican said it was asking Beijing for "positive signals" about the talks. The CCPA declined to comment.

State watch

In interviews, underground Catholic clergy in China said they continue to face pressure to join the CCPA. That is problematic because the CCPA statutes say the organization is independent of Rome, which clashes with the fundamental Catholic belief that the church is one, holy, universal and apostolic.

"(Police) came to me again two years ago and asked me to sign up," said an 86-year-old Chinese Catholic priest who runs a small underground church inside his apartment in Shanghai. The priest, who spent three decades in a labor camp in Western China for refusing to give up his faith, said he told the police: "I gave up more than 30 years of my life for a principle: Do you think I could ever join (the CCPA)?"

The priest, who declined to be named, said that his movements are restricted and that authorities have repeatedly refused to issue him a passport, denying him his long-standing wish to carry out a pilgrimage abroad.

Other underground priests and faithful interviewed by Reuters said they faced similar restrictions and were often questioned by police about their activities. Local authorities also ask to scrutinize all evangelical material, including adverts for charity events, according to Catholic faithful.

Reuters was unable to confirm these accounts. An official at China's State Administration for Religious Affairs declined to comment, saying the agency had not received any reports of restrictions. The CCPA declined to comment.

In September, Chinese police took underground priest Shao Zhumin out of his diocese in Zhejiang province against his will, according to sources with direct knowledge of the situation. The police wanted to prevent Shao, who had been appointed by the Vatican as assistant bishop of Wenzhou, from running the diocese after the death of a local bishop, according to the sources. Officials did not respond to requests for comment.

In Shanghai, the auxiliary bishop Ma Daqin has been under house arrest for more than four years after his resignation from the CCPA on the day of his ordination. The Shanghai seminary of Sheshan, where Ma resides, was once home to nearly a hundred Catholic students; its activity has now ground to a near-halt, with only six seminarians still studying at the school.

In the long term, such restrictions and declines pose problems for the Catholic Church, not least because Protestant churches are becoming increasingly popular in China. Those churches have opted for a less confrontational approach with the government.

New challenges

Amid the tensions and talks, one Catholic priest has thrown down a challenge to both the Vatican and Chinese authorities. In October, the Rev. Dong Guanhua declared he had been ordained bishop of Zhengding, 185 miles southwest of Beijing, in 2005. He said he had become bishop without the mandate of either the Chinese authorities or the Vatican, and he has so far refused to clarify the circumstances of his ordination, even to the Vatican.

Dong, who says he never went to seminary and taught himself the Bible during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when many clergy were imprisoned or defrocked, is a maverick. But he illustrates the risk that some radical elements of the underground church in China may break away from Rome, according to Vatican and church officials.

"The underground church will be wiped out if I don't do this," said Dong, 58, referring to taking a stand against the state-led church.

The Vatican has urged underground Catholics in China not to take matters into their own hands if they oppose the Holy See and Beijing mending fences. But it has stopped short of criticizing Dong. Rome appreciates that if he refused to bow to Vatican orders, it would show the Chinese government that Rome does not fully control the underground Catholics, according to Vatican and church officials.

In light of such challenges, some senior members of the Chinese clergy, in both official and underground communities, say they believe current talks between the Vatican and the Chinese authorities are going too fast. They feel a deal on the appointment of Chinese bishops, if signed, would be a historic step — but they caution that the wounds of repression cut deep and may take a generation to heal.

Even some of those who support dialogue between Rome and Beijing say a deal would not immediately bring together the official and underground communities after decades of suffering.

"The Catholic communities are very suspicious of each other. We are like a traumatized child," said Paulus Han, a cleric and a prominent religious blogger in China. "We have to learn to live with a number of contradictions. It takes time."


  1. these catholics should not trust pope francis; he is secretly building a global “church” that will embrace all religions. Thus he needs to water the doctrine down to the point of making it palatable to all-even muslims; and he has to get all leaders in the world to cooperate with him. Therefore, he will be willing to “sell out” traditional catholics everywhere if that’s what it takes.
    Any catholic that truly loves Jesus and wants to continue to follow Him should make the transition away from institutional religion and just read the bible and pray to God through Jesus Christ for all their needs to be met, both physical and spiritual. That way, you won’t be led astray by some man’s evil plans.

  2. This current pope is “sadly” a secular pope…And that is not good news for catholics or the world…Pray that he embraces God and his Lamb and not this world that will pass away with the secular heart…

  3. Very sad to read such garbage on Christmas eve. Pope Francis understand what is means to forgive and to love. A message that is lost on many.

  4. The most faithful Catholics aren’t convinced that Bergoglio isn’t an antipope.

  5. Frances is not a spiritual man. He is a Marxist, first and foremost. His rise was foreseen forty years ago.

    “I see the rise of a super world church. I see the formation of a super world church council consisting of a union between liberal, ecumenical Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church joining politically hand-in-hand to create one of the most powerful religious forces on earth. This union is going to start as a cooperative charity program and it will end in a political union. This visible super world church is going to be spiritual in name only, freely using the name of Jesus Christ, but will in fact be antichrist and political in many of its activities. This powerful church union will be deeply involved in social action, tremendous charity programs, and ministries of compassion. Its leaders will make statements about meeting human needs. They will send out a call for social action, political intervention and a greater voice in world affairs.

    “There is going to be a sudden mysterious chain of events. Just when it appears the ecumenical movement is nearly dead, a rather mysterious chain of events will bring about the framework for this union. Rome is going to insist on and receive concessions from the Protestant ecumenical leaders. The Pope will be considered more of a political than a spiritual leader of this church union.”

  6. I agree that the above is garbage. However, you are ignoring that others have also said that the pope is “throwing Chinese Catholics under the bus” and that his deal with Xi Jinping would be an “unmitigated disaster” for them. As far as “forgive and love,” the only Vatican trial (Vatileaks 2.0) in this pontificate was to punish those responsible for bringing to light the vast financial corruption in the Vatican during his reign.

  7. Dear Betty, I have to ignore what others have said, I will wait and hear from Francis on the subject. I don’t believe he would throw anyone under a bus. I am sure the negotiations with China are very complicated. Regarding Vatileaks, the Pope just pardoned the priest involved, it is my understanding of Canon law the Pope had no say in the sentence handed down. Peace this Christmas day.

  8. I have to disagree with you, have you not listened to his words and seen his actions. This man is a humble holy man of God. He walks in the foot steps of Chris and invites us to do the same. He could not be further from a secular Pope. Open your eyes, ears and heart and see the good that God has sent us. As a practicing Catholic he has brought great hope to many of us.

  9. Dear GEB, ignoring what others say and relying only on what the pope says, of course, results in your disbelief but not good judgement. The pope did not pardon Balda, he granted him an early release from prison although he is to remain under “supervision.” Charges had been brought based on the law that the pope enacted on July 13, 2013, criminalizing disclosure of any information harmful to the Vatican. Balda and Francesca Chaouqui were arrested with pope’s “personal approval” ( The pope said he gave the court the “concrete charges” ( against the defendants. The Promoter of Justice (prosecutor) had been appointed by the pope. Balda was convicted based on his confession. Chaouqui was given a suspended sentence based on lack of evidence other that Balda implicating her.

  10. Only a real religionist could write so many contradictions into one paragraph.
    “This powerful church union will be deeply involved in social action, tremendous charity programs, and ministries of compassion. Its leaders will make statements about meeting human needs. They will send out a call for social action, political intervention and a greater voice in world affairs.”

    Only a super religionist could see the church doing what it says it does as a bad thing.

  11. “he is secretly building a global “church” that will embrace all religions”

    They have that already. They are called Unitarian Universalists. A fairly sedate bunch. Not particularly obnoxious. The Pope isn’t one of them.

  12. Charisma News is an evangelical propaganda organ. They think the Catholic Church is evil as a default position.

  13. I realize that the unitarian universalists are wide open to all other faiths, beliefs, etc., besides having some christians, but I don’t see them becoming a real “global” institution since they don’t have an established, well-known central leader such as the catholics do.

  14. Only an atheist could make such a statement as that. You failed to note that he said that though their movement would start out as “charitable” it would end up as a political union. That is the last thing the church needs. You don’t understand that the church is not just about doing good deeds; the most important aspect of the Church is to save people’s souls-to guide them to God through their acknowledgment that Jesus Christ is God’s Son and can forgive their sins and lead them to reconciliation with The Father. Of course, an atheist cannot see that they are a sinner needing salvation, so this is moot for you.
    If I am really concerned with the Things of God, I am going to eschew a political, socialist institution that discourages me from reading the bible and tells me that one man is capable of telling everyone authoritatively what they should and shouldn’t do and/or believe.
    I may do good works all of the time, but I know that what’s crucial is for me to be doing God’s will, as He reveals it to me (through relationship with Him).

  15. People have been talking trash about the Catholic church since its inception most of the criticism is on the mark and entirely warranted. This is a bit paranoid. Like “new world order” nonsense or the typical “Whore of Babylon” stuff thrown at them. There is a ton of legitimate, well founded things to go after them about without resorting to that.

    Besides your average “traditional Catholic” has more in common with protestant fundamentalists these days, than the majority of their own sect.

  16. “Only an atheist could make such a statement as that.” Only an atheist? Please. I’m someone who reads books.

    “That is the last thing the church needs.” Yet, it is always the first thing the capital C Chruch has done– seek political power. It has only been the last 250 years that that power has been curtailed. But not for lack of trying on the part of the church. Catholics, Mormons, and Baptists have always sought political power over the lives of people who don’t share their beliefs. That is what the so-called Moral Majority was about, its what the Baptist political action committees are about, and its what the anti-abortion, anti-sex education, and anti gay industries are about.

    “the most important aspect of the Church is to save people’s souls-to guide them to God through their acknowledgment that Jesus Christ is God’s Son and can forgive their sins and lead them to reconciliation with The Father.” 2/3 of the world thinks that statement is nonsense, as do half of those who call themselves Christian./ and of course, there is no reticence to forgo using the civil law htat governs all of us to force that on people.

    “Of course, an atheist cannot see that they are a sinner needing salvation, so this is moot for you.” you almost have it. As an atheist, it’s not a question of “can’t’ see it. I simply don’t agree. And here I am in agreement with Jesus himself: LOOK TO YOUR OWN SOUL’S SALVATION. And keep away from presuming anything about mine. And for the record, I had a deep flirtation with Christianity some 45 years ago, before Christianity itself convinced me that it was not for me.

    ” I am going to eschew a political, socialist institution…” socialist does not mean what you think it means.

    ” that discourages me from reading the bible…” you just prefer one that encourages to read it and accept the word of that institution that it means what the institution says it means. There is no real difference.
    “and tells me that one man is capable of telling everyone authoritatively what they should and shouldn’t do and/or believe.” Got a mirror?

  17. “Ben” (apparently that is not you); I probably shouldn’t be trying
    to debate religion with an atheist; no amount of logic and reason can change
    their hearts; it takes The Spirit to do that. However, you keep seeming to
    “wrap” the argument with your clever digs at the end, provoking me to
    correct you.

    I agree totally that the mainstream church, especially those you mentioned
    but also the huge evangelical ones, is politically-based and only seeks to control
    its members. When I speak of The Church, I am actually referring to those
    individuals that really belong to Jesus Christ, who are united in spirit. They
    would be the people that tend to eschew institutionalized religion. I myself,
    after leaving the rcc, attended an evangelical fellowship for a few years until
    I finally realized that that church too was hindering a true walk with Jesus
    and walked away from that and haven’t belonged to any group since then. And I
    repudiate much of the activities of those groups (especially the westborough
    baptist group), but I still don’t characterize their views as
    “anti-abortion, anti-sex education, or anti-gay”; rather, I do
    believe that “you guys” have formed those terms yourselves to reframe
    what was originally a “platform” that was “pro-life,
    pro-morality, and pro-God’s word”. Christians in general are not against
    any activity except sin, and we cannot help but to represent God’s viewpoint on
    things as we read them in the bible. You are the guys that characterize us as
    attacking, hating, etc., but that isn’t true (at least speaking for myself); it
    is only a proactive, speaking for God, as someone has to. And I totally do NOT believe in forcing any
    of God’s truth on anyone; I don’t even want some kind of “sharia” law
    that would be based on God’s word. No, each person’s salvation has nothing to
    do with their behavior, good or bad, so it is ridiculous to think that making
    them obey God’s laws is going to change this world or help their souls.

    quote: “….. you just prefer one that encourages to read it and accept
    the word of that institution that it means what the institution says it means.
    There is no real difference.
    “and tells me that one man is capable of telling everyone authoritatively
    what they should and shouldn’t do and/or believe.” Got a mirror?
    As mentioned above, I do not prefer ANY institution; I do not believe in an institution that supposedly is going to tell me what God’s word says and/or means or what God’s will is for me. My walk with Jesus involves my getting to know Him intimately enough to receive direction, understanding, wisdom, etc from Him: He is the One that informs my reading–not man or any group. The involvement that I have with other believers is something that refreshes me, builds me up, supports me, gives me accountability and becomes for me The Body of Christ through our fellowship. We never get involved with politics or even preaching, but rather, we may be “sent” by God to others to be used by Him to reach that person for Him,
    but there’s no place for condemnation of their behavior or choices, since God
    is not really interested in their good behavior, but rather is interested in reconciliation/relationship with Him. The issue I have with sin is that it effectively separates one from God–that’s the crisis, not the sin.

    So, your having “flirted with Christianity” just means that you necessarily suffered from the effects of having been in another “religion”. It’s very easy to be a christian and never know God and therefore receive no benefit
    from Him. In truth, I don’t even blame “religion”, since it really all gets down to what’s in your heart, and whether you choose to respond to His continual knocking at your heart’s door or to reject Him.

    BTW, I used to live in San Fran, and grew up in the bay area.

  18. Thanks for your courteous response.
    Again, I don’t have time to answer right now. I will answer later. But we’re making some progress. I will say this much now: what you call clever digs, I would call asking you to dig a little deeper and think about the question.
    But later. I have too much to do now.

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