TOUGH public arguments, including some colourful name-calling, are going on between influential figures in the Catholic church. Not, this time, about the status of divorcees who remarry, or any other pastoral or theological conundrum, but about China.

For decades, two separate structures have practised Catholicism in China. One is the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), established by the Beijing authorities in 1957 and unrecognised by the Vatican. The other is the long-persecuted, semi-clandestine church headed by bishops who were canonically ordained by Rome. This situation reflects China’s refusal to host institutions which defer to a foreign authority, and Rome’s belief that only its blessing can make a bishop legitimate.

As the prospects emerge of a historic diplomatic breakthrough between the Holy See and China, two very different impulses are in conflict. One is the anti-communist tradition of speaking truth to atheist power, whatever the price. The other is a more pragmatic way of thinking, which accepts tradeoffs in the hope of a huge geopolitical prize.

On February 9th an 86-year Chinese prelate, Cardinal Joseph Zen, lamented that the Vatican was behaving “unfaithfully” by preparing a bargain that would put 12m Chinese believers in a “bird cage” controlled by the communist authorities.

In recent months, the outspoken cardinal (who is relatively free to speak thanks to his location in Hong Kong) has alleged that “poison” has infected the mind of the Vatican’s top diplomats, and asserted that the pope is not always fully informed. He has described the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, as a man of little faith. This has earned him several rebukes from the Vatican, most recently on February 7th when he was scolded for fostering “confusion and controversy” about the state and future of Sino-Catholic relations.

Cardinal Zen is the loudest critic of an impending deal. He says this will involve bishops being selected, in practice, by the Chinese government, endorsed by some notionally self-governing procedure, and then only at the final stage subject to veto from Rome. This would give Rome at least a semblance of control and allow it to recognise these prelates.

Cardinal Zen said this arrangement would be a fraud and the Holy See would be reluctant to use its veto power. “They (the Chinese government) say the last word belongs to the Holy Father. Sounds wonderful? But it’s fake,” he declared.

Among people in Cardinal Zen’s camp, the impending deal is seen as a betrayal of the clerics who endured years of torment for their loyalty to Rome, and to the principle of papal authority. To prepare the way for a deal, some of those old-guard bishops are being asked to step aside in favour of prelates who enjoy Beijing’s approval. 

Unhappiness about the impending deal is also reflected in some articles carried by asianews.it, a well-connected Catholic news agency which covers religious politics from Baghdad to Beijng. 

A recent report described how an 88-year-old prelate of the old, persecuted generation broke down in tears when asked by a Vatican delegation to step down in favour of a bishop who enjoyed Beijing’s blessing. The elderly man did not object to retiring but hated yielding his position to a state-endorsed figure.

Meanwhile, the editor-in-chief of asianews.it, Father Bernardo Cervellera, has had a colourful public spat with an influential, Rome-based Argentine bishop who praised China’s social and environmental policies and said the communist state was the “best implementer” of the Vatican’s social doctrine.

Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, had lauded Beijing for “defending the dignity of the person” and avoiding the influence of business over politics which existed in say, America.

Father Cervellera retorted that such utopian naivety risked becoming an embarrassment for the church. “When my friends tell me they are going to China, I always advise them not to stop at the shopping centers, the ultra-luxury hotels and the skyscrapers, but also to go out to the peripheries to get a better picture of real China,” he wrote. The Argentine’s rosy-eyed impressions took no account of the Chinese authorities’ ruthless clearances of poor neighbourhoods, or indeed of religious persecution.

One does not have to share the Argentine bishop’s gushing enthusiasm to see how a breakthrough with China is enticing for the Vatican. Pope Francis has said he would like to visit that country. But as many Western countries are discovering, Beijing does not offer free lunches.