China moved toward a historic reconciliation with the Vatican as the two countries signed a provisional agreement on Sept. 22 about the appointment of bishops.
China's Catholic churches have long been divided into two groups -- one sanctioned by Beijing and the other comprising underground churches loyal to the Holy See. The focal point now is whether the oppression of the underground churches will end.
Originally, the atheistic communist regime of China and the Vatican were enemies. The Holy See did not recognize the People's Republic of China when it was established in 1949, and they severed ties entirely when the Vatican minister to China was expelled.
China created its own Catholic body, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and appointed bishops for domestic dioceses. The Vatican did not recognize these appointments, and the two sides were long at loggerheads.
The Chinese government says China has approximately 6 million Catholics, but it is estimated that about the same number belong to the underground churches, bringing the projected total to some 12 million.
Of some 100 bishops, some 60 percent are ordained both by China and the pope, with another 30 percent appointed by the pope alone. With the latest agreement, Pope Francis acknowledged seven bishops named only by Beijing. This means that all bishops in China obtained their positions under the authority of the pope, meaning that the Vatican now stands at the head of both officially recognized and underground congregations.
For Beijing, merging the two groups is an easy way to control China's Catholics as the government increases state control of religion under the banner of strengthening the rule of law.
Furthermore, the Vatican is the only European country with diplomatic ties to Taiwan, and it appears Beijing's moves to normalize relations with the Holy See are intended in part to boost diplomatic pressure on the island territory, which China considers a renegade province.
If China intends to guarantee "freedom of religion" only to groups it recognizes using the agreement with the Vatican as a justification, it would be putting the cart before the horse.
Recently, the Chinese authorities have carried out repeated crackdowns on the country's growing underground Protestant churches, saying they are not registered with the government. Meanwhile, Beijing's systemic persecution of the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority has been pointed out in a United Nations. Human right violations against the people of Tibet who follow the exiled Dalai Lama, now living in India, are also always seen as a problem.
It is only natural that people in a society that is becoming complex as a result of its economic growth turn to religion for peace of mind. Beijing's religious intolerance also contributes to the view that China is an abnormal country. As the agreement with the Vatican is struck, Beijing could contribute to the stability of Chinese society by reviewing its religious policy.