Why the Holy See hopes a new agreement will be worth the sacrifices

At the opening Mass of the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment in Rome, Pope Francis wept before his brother bishops.

“Today, for the first time, we have also with us two bishops from Mainland China,” the Holy Father stated with tears in his eyes, his voice breaking for a moment before continuing. 

“We offer them our warm welcome: The communion of the entire episcopate with the successor of Peter is yet more visible thanks to their presence.”

Their presence with government approval at the worldwide gathering of bishops was both a sign of the Church in China’s restored communion with the Bishop of Rome, and an affirmation from China’s government of the historic provisional agreement on the selection of bishops signed in Beijing on September 22.

For more than 60 years, the Catholic faithful and their bishops in China have been painfully divided into two communities: one registered and official, the other unregistered and “underground.” The split stems from 1957, when nationalist forces within the Chinese Church demanded Catholics abandon their loyalty to the pope.

Building on decades of diplomacy begun during the papacy of St. Pope John Paul II, the Holy See has signed a provisional agreement with Beijing to normalize the selection of bishops and to restore seven previously excommunicated government-approved bishops to full communion.

Rachel Zhu Xiaohong, a scholar of religious studies at the Fudan University in Shanghai, told Angelus News the provisional agreement — a text that remains under wraps — is “an achievement” that will help unite China’s 12 million Catholics, the majority of whom belong to the official Church.

“The whole Church will be in full communion,” she said. The pope’s creation of a new diocese outside Beijing, and government authorization for two bishops to attend the conference on behalf of the Chinese Church, showed that even with the agreement’s provisional nature, rapid progress was being made.

While China’s nearly 100 Catholic bishops now are in full communion with Rome, more work remains for both the Vatican and the government. A patchwork of diocesan boundaries have to be reconciled, long vacant sees must be filled, and approximately 30 underground bishops have to be accepted by the government.

In his letter to China’s Catholics, the Holy Father said the agreement between the Holy See and the government is aimed at “providing the Catholic community with good shepherds,” not simply religious functionaries.

The pontiff also acknowledged the painful sacrifices born by Catholics who remained loyal to Rome, but said he hoped the agreement would lead to a process of much-needed reconciliation.

Altar servers lead a Palm Sunday procession March 25 in Youtong, in China's Hebei province. (CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE PHOTO/DAMIR SAGOLJ, REUTERS)

If the process ends up resembling anything like the current process for bishop selections in Shanghai, the Vatican may have a say at possibly two points in the selection process of a bishop, according to Zhu. 

In such a scenario, the local church has an election with representatives of the clergy, the religious, and eligible lay people. (One of the ad hoc practices for dioceses seeking papal approval, prior to the agreement, has been to submit the names of nominees to the Vatican in case there is any objection.) 

Once the nominee is elected, the name is then submitted to the local party bureau. 

If it passes the muster of the local government, the nominee is then sent to the Chinese Catholic bishops’ conference, which is subordinate to the Catholic Patriotic Association. Once they approve the candidate, he is then given a final check by the government and cleared for ordination. 

At this point, the pope could have final veto power, and either allow him to proceed to ordination or veto the candidate and restart the process, said Zhu, who stressed that the actual details of the process aren’t known for certain.

“This is only the beginning, not the end of the dialogue,” she said. “They have a long way to go.”

But the agreement also has its skeptics, particularly from human rights advocates that note China’s government is brutally cracking down on minority religious groups, including unregistered Christian churches, and the Uighur Muslims in western China.

Religious Freedom Institute President Thomas Farr testified September 27 before a U.S. House of Representatives committee on religious liberty in China that Chinese President Xi Jinping has orchestrated “the most comprehensive attempt to manipulate and control religious communities” since China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

Part of the Chinese Communist Party’s program involves changing “the fundamental nature of certain religions,” he said, including Catholicism in China.

In his testimony, Farr discussed the agreement reached between the Vatican and China regarding the appointment of bishops. Farr said that as a Catholic and an expert on religious liberty, he was “skeptical” of the deal. 

The Church has previously made concessions to some states around the appointment of bishops, but within the context of a Chinese government committed to controlling religious institutions within its borders, the agreement “seems untimely and dangerous,” he said.

Farr maintained bishops nominated by the government will likely be valued for their acquiescence to party ideology rather than their fidelity to the Catholic Church.

“I sincerely hope that I am wrong. I hope there are parts of the agreement that will alleviate these concerns,” he said. 

But he doubts the agreement would help Catholics or advance religious freedom. “The Chinese know what they are doing. The Vatican’s charism, on the other hand, is not diplomacy, but witness to the truth about God and man.”

Therese (real name withheld by request), a Chinese Catholic studying in the U.S., told Angelus News she was mostly happy about the agreement. 

“People need bishops because they need valid sacraments,” she said, explaining the decision opens the channels of God’s grace for the benefit of all Catholics in China. “The small underground Church obviously cannot get everyone in. At the same time, the ‘above-ground’ Catholics might lose their faith if they can’t live a sacramental life.”

Therese however said Catholics will have to “wait and see” whether the new relationship is just “superficial.” She said Beijing still aims to corral the Church within the state’s patriotic ideology, while the Vatican wants oversight of the Church, and neither side seem to trust each other very much.

“I’m curious how exactly Beijing and Vatican would cooperate when we get the next bishop,” she said. 

Therese said among fellow young Chinese Catholics, she has heard  “far more applause than critics.” But critics of the agreement, she said, come mainly from towns where the local government and Church are in conflict, and other places where the underground Church is active.

“They think the agreement between Beijing and Vatican won’t change anything,” she said. Some believe the government will violate the provisional agreement, and the Vatican will once again regularize illegally consecrated bishops without getting anything in return.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired archbishop of Hong Kong, attends an early February news conference in Hong Kong. (CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE PHOTO/BOBBY YIP, REUTERS)

Among Chinese Catholics who oppose the agreement is Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong. In an interview with Reuters, Zen called on Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin to resign, and termed the agreement a “complete surrender” and betrayal of the Faith.

Therese said that if the government’s new attitude toward the Church holds, the underground Church should reintegrate with the official Church. She acknowledged this would be difficult due to memories of persecution, but China has been changing, and the Church cannot accept division as the norm.

Michel Chambon, an anthropologist who has studied Christianity in China on the ground, told Angelus News the Vatican wants this deal because the underground Church is stagnating, and the situation undermines the authority of bishops to govern and teach.

Chambon said the Vatican allowed underground bishops to consecrate their own successors without seeking prior papal approval, and even in secret, as a result of fierce persecution during the 1970s. But the Vatican has lost track of some of these bishops and their episcopal lineage, and there are doubts as to whether some alleged underground bishops in China are actually valid.

“That doesn’t please the Holy See at all,” he said. The Holy See also wants to stop the “underground” Church’s existence from being used as a means to escape episcopal oversight. 

In some cases, Chambon said, wealthy entrepreneurs, who do not like the main official churches in the area, just build an unregistered church, say they are “underground,” and pay for a priest to come in.

Father Zhaojun “Jerome” Bai, SVD, a native of China who ministers to Chinese Catholics throughout Southern California, told Angelus News he believed the restored communion will free up the Church in China to devote its energies toward evangelization. 

He noted that lay Chinese Catholics are trying to evangelize, and a united Church would facilitate a renewal of theological formation and initiatives.

Bai believed the agreement between the Vatican and China may give the government a model of rapprochement with other religious groups. In this and other ways, he said, the Church can help the government achieve the peaceful coexistence Confucius envisioned. 

“Christianity will help China reach the dream of a harmonious society.”

 

Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register, and a frequent contributor to Angelus.

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