ROME — Pope Francis and his diplomats have been quietly pouring energy into negotiations with the Chinese government that could help end a decades-long dispute over control of the Catholic Church in the country.
But as signs of a possible breakthrough have emerged — how bishops get ordained has long been a sticking point — some Catholics are worried. They fear that the Vatican, in its eagerness for a deal, could betray clerics and parishioners who have illicitly practiced their faith for decades and risked arrest and persecution by worshiping in the so-called underground church. They are also alarmed that a deal could end the independence for which the underground church has long stood.
The dissension escalated on Friday as the retired archbishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, intensified his criticism of the talks, saying that a reconciliation could result in 12 million Chinese Catholics being effectively put in a Communist-controlled “cage.” He has accused church bureaucrats of “selling out” Chinese Catholics, and warned, “A church enslaved by the government is no real Catholic Church.”
Cardinal Zen did not attack the pope directly, but called Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope’s second-in-command, “a man of little faith.” Another prelate has mocked one of the pope’s close collaborators as living “in Wonderland” for his depiction of China as a country uniquely in sync with the church’s values.
The public sniping has erupted even though firm details of talks between the Vatican and the Chinese government have not been disclosed — or what Francis might be willing to sacrifice for an agreement that could be a first step toward restoring diplomatic relations and allowing him to become the first pope to visit China.
“There’s progress,” one senior Vatican official confirmed, insisting on anonymity, when asked to describe the negotiations. Francis has sent the church’s top China experts to attend secret working groups in Beijing. State news media coverage in China has been noticeably positive about the talks. Top Vatican officials have spoken carefully about “realistic” solutions and “reconciliation.”
The Vatican and China broke off diplomatic relations in 1951, two years after the Communist takeover. In 1957, China established the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association to oversee Catholic churches, but the Vatican, despite some recognition of the authority of its priests to administer sacraments, does not fully recognize it. It has secretly named bishops to lead the “underground” church.
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI both made overtures toward the Chinese government to settle the dispute, but each saw the negotiations stall or founder.
Despite the controversy, the Vatican does not seem to be distracted from a potential deal that would be “a breakthrough that we have been waiting for many years,” said Jeroom Heyndrickx, the acting director of the Belgium-based Ferdinand Verbiest Institute, who sat on a commission that advised Benedict on relations with China. “Finally there would be an agreement over the appointment of bishops in China.”
Cardinal Zen confirmed that the Vatican had already asked one underground bishop to step aside and make way for a state-authorized bishop who is also a member of China’s rubber-stamp Parliament, the National People’s Congress. Francis has also received a request to pardon seven state-authorized Chinese bishops whom the Vatican considered illegitimate, according to the senior Vatican official.
People familiar with the negotiations say one possibility being discussed would give the pope final say in picking a bishop from three candidates chosen by the Chinese. It is unclear whether the pope would have an absolute veto in the process.
Another sticking point is whether more than 30 bishops from the underground church will be legitimized by Chinese authorities as part of the deal, an issue that, in a letter last year, Cardinal John Tong of Hong Kong called “the most difficult problem.”
The urgency of the issue is partly because the rights of almost all social groups are becoming more constrained in China under President Xi Jinping. Last week, Beijing extended enhanced surveillance to religious groups, with new laws taking effect that could make it harder for unregistered religious groups — such as the underground Catholic churches — to meet and hold services.
Catholicism is losing ground in China. There are 10 million to 12 million Catholics in China, roughly the same percentage of the population as in the late 1940s when the Communists took power. By contrast, Protestantism has expanded rapidly and is widely regarded as the country’s fastest-growing religion.
Yet opposition to a deal is powerful among factions inside both the church and the Chinese government. In an interview, the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions and editor of AsiaNews, argued that the Chinese government was trying to “eliminate the underground church.” He said that under the new laws, members of the underground church could be subject to new fines, imprisonment and the expropriation of buildings.
From Hong Kong, Cardinal Zen is a longtime opponent of the Chinese government. He has spent much of the past two weeks criticizing the Vatican, while reporting that he hand-delivered a letter to Pope Francis from an 88-year-old underground bishop whom the pope’s envoy had asked to step aside.
Cardinal Zen suggested that the Vatican’s Chinese delegation was getting out in front of the pontiff. But Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, who is overseeing the negotiations with China, confirmed in a much-discussed interview with an Italian newspaper that the pope was indeed on the same page as his diplomats, and that it was improper to suggest otherwise.
The Vatican has been staging cultural exchanges with Chinese museums. One of the pope’s close collaborators, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who recently returned from Beijing, went so far in an interview with the Vatican Insider this week as to say the Chinese “are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church.”
That has raised hackles from critics of human rights abuses.
“We can understand that in the heat of desire for relations between China and the Vatican, one can be doting and exalt Chinese culture,” Father Cervellera wrote in an editorial headlined “Sánchez Sorondo in Wonderland.” But, he added, “adulating China is an ideological affirmation that makes a laughingstock of the Church.”
In a subsequent email exchange, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo said that he was being criticized “because evidently I did not take into account the problem of freedom of conscience.”
“They are right about this,” he said.
The pope’s defenders have pushed back.
“The pope is not naïve at all, he is walking the same path of Benedict XVI, trying to find a way to dialogue with the authorities,” said the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and papal adviser. “The question is to be realistic. What kind of agreement can we reach? It’s a matter of trust. We want the Chinese government to know we are not interested in politics, we are interested in faith.”
Mr. Heyndrickx said such a deal was hardly unprecedented. In the 16th century, he said, the pope gave the French king the right to appoint major clerics. And Pope Pius VII signed a similar agreement with Napoleon. More recently, the Vatican has been willing to accept limitations to operate under Communist governments such as Vietnam’s.
After winning China’s civil war in 1949, the Communist Party asserted control over all organized religions, but Catholicism came in for special scrutiny. Beijing expelled the Vatican envoy in 1951, severing relations. The Vatican, in turn, has never recognized the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the entity Beijing established to oversee state-recognized bishops and churches. Over time, an underground church emerged that did not recognize the government patriotic association.
But in 2007, Benedict took an important step toward reconciliation by recognizing the celebration of sacraments inside the state’s official churches. He also chose Cardinal Parolin, then an archbishop, to lead negotiations with Beijing, though talks stalled. When Francis became pope in 2013, he named Archbishop Parolin as his secretary of state and later elevated him to cardinal. In 2014, China allowed the pope to fly over its airspace on a trip to South Korea and the pope dispatched Rome-based officials, led by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, to restart talks.
Yet on a recent flight back to Rome from a trip to Bangladesh, Pope Francis reiterated his desire to go to China. “Talks with China are at high levels,” he said, adding, “I believe it will be good for everyone to carry out a trip to China. I would like to do one.”