Vatican Reportedly Drops “Underground” Bishops in Favor of Beijing
The Holy See has reportedly asked two “underground” bishops to resign in deference to Chinese state-appointed bishops in order to pursue closer ties with the People’s Republic of China. The breakthrough comes as a flurry of negotiations between the Vatican and Beijing, and appears to be smoothing over certain aspects of the long-standing tumultuous relationship between the Catholic Church and the Communist Party of China.
While many issues stand in the way of full rapprochement between the Vatican and Beijing — including the Holy See’s recognition of the government in Taipei as the official representative of all China as well as questions over religious freedom in officially atheist Mainland China — the chief point of contention between the two sides has been Beijing’s insistence on controlling appointments and ordination of bishops independent of the Pope.
Beijing supervises Chinese Catholics in its territory via the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), which was formed in 1957. After expelling the representatives of the Holy See in 1951, Beijing began picking and ordaining its own bishops after the Holy See rejected a demand for approval made by CCPA-backed Bishop Bernardino Dong Guangqing and threatened to excommunicate him prior to his ordination ceremony in April 1958. Pope Pius XII, in his June 1958 encyclical Ad Apostolorum principis, condemned the CCPA and the formation of a “patriotic Chinese Catholic Church” independent of the authority of the Holy See and declared bishops that participated in consecrations of bishops selected by the CCPA to be excommunicated from the Church. As such, the Catholic Church in China is split among churches that decline to associate with the CCPA in order to remain loyal to the Pope — the illegal “underground churches” — and the churches associated with the CCPA.
While the Holy See has, on an individual basis, approved CCPA-ordained bishops, the Holy See has also recognized secretly-ordained clergy to be legitimate bishops for the Catholic Church in China. These “underground” bishops face arrest and imprisonment while their illegal congregations face interference on matters of faith, intense surveillance, and the outright demolition of houses of worship by Beijing.
The complicated diplomatic situation between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China is also reflected in the Church hierarchy concerning Chinese-speaking Catholics in the territories of Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. The Catholic Church currently recognizes the Chinese Regional Bishops’ Conference (informally the Bishops’ Conference of Taiwan), headquartered in Taipei, as the sole legitimate episcopal conference for the Church in China, while the independent Church jurisdictions of Hong Kong and Macau report directly to the Pope. In practice, Church posts in Mainland China are either filled by CCPA-backed clergy (with various states of recognition by the Vatican), left unoccupied, or administered in name by a Pope-appointed prelate.
In an account published by Catholic press agency AsiaNews on Jan. 22, 2018, Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou, southern Guangdong province, and Bishop Joseph Guo Xijin of Mindong, eastern Fujian province, were both requested by a visiting Vatican delegation to resign their posts and either accept a demotion to serve Beijing’s bishopric picks or retire. Bishop Zhuang reportedly left the meeting in tears and declined to resign, while Bishop Guo announced on Feb. 11 his willingness to step down to advance any deal between the Vatican and Beijing.
Retired Archbishop of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen — an ardent critic of the Communist Party of China and the CCPA that visited Pope Francis on Jan. 10 — confirmed the report on Jan. 29 and stated that he had informed the Pope of his objections to recognizing the CCPA-appointed “illegitimate” bishops and urged the Pope “to look into the matter.” Cardinal Zen also revealed that the Pope had reportedly told his diplomatic staff “not to create another Mindszenty case,” referring to then-head of the Catholic Church in Hungary Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who sought refuge from Communist persecution in the US embassy in 1956 until finally leaving Hungary under pressure from the Vatican in 1971 and dying abroad in 1975.
In an open letter published by Cardinal Zen on social media, the Cardinal condemned the “slavery and humiliation...[to which] our brother Bishops are subjected” and claimed the “Communist Government is making new harsher regulations limiting religious freedom.” Cardinal Zen asserted his belief that the Vatican was “selling out the Catholic Church in China” and ended the letter with a defiant claim of being “happy to be the obstacle” in “the process of reaching a deal between the Vatican and China.”
A senior Vatican source revealed to Reuters on Feb. 1 that a “framework accord” on the issue of the appointment of bishops was being prepared and would be ready for signature “in a few months.” The deal would give the Vatican a say in negotiations for the appointment of future bishops, supplanting what the source called “a gentleman’s agreement” on seven CCPA-backed bishops who would seek a papal pardon to be formally made legitimate bishops by the Pope. The source also rejected Cardinal Zen’s claims of the Vatican “willing” to sell out Chinese Catholics and denied any rift between Pope Francis and his envoys in China.
Reactions to this development in Vatican-Beijing relations from both sides of the Taiwan Strait spanned a wide range of sentiments. Lawmakers in Taipei from all political parties expressed concern about the future of Vatican-Taipei relations, while Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported that the Vatican has kept the government of Taiwan informed of the content of discussions between envoys of the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China.
Archbishop of Taipei, John Hung Shan-chuan, expressed his doubts about diplomatic relations being established between the Vatican and China, noting that “the potential for Beijing and the Vatican to establish diplomatic relations make headlines every year but never end up being true.” Archbishop Hung also stated his belief that “Taiwan is the Pope’s ‘flock of lambs’ and the Pope will not give up on any flock.”
China’s state-run Global Times penned an editorial on Feb. 6 praising Pope Francis’s “wisdom” and asserted “Beijing and the Vatican will establish diplomatic relations sooner or later.” The editorial also hinted at the Vatican possibly dropping recognition of Taiwan, noting that “Taiwan is clear about its insignificance to the Vatican, and thus worried that it may be eventually abandoned.”
The Holy See may be on the verge of a conclusive resolution to the thorny issue of bishop appointments with Beijing. However, the Pope will have to find some way to justify the “substantive concessions” to skeptics in the Church and beyond. Dissension among several cardinals has spilled into the public arena, with an “unholy war of words” breaking out over the reported deal.