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China and Vietnam are unrelated realities

HONG KONG (UCAN): Government-sanctioned Catholic organisations in China held their Ninth National Congress for Catholic Representatives in December 2016.

What is worrying is that this congress claims to be the supervisor of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, while the conference itself claims authority over individual diocesan bishops.

Neither of these two practices are compatible with Canon Law or the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

The congress concluded with a public benediction in place of the usual Eucharist to avoid the embarrassing situation of legitimately and illegitimately ordained bishops concelebrating together, at least in the public forum.

In this day and age, this may be interpreted as one positive sign that the Vatican was looking for from the congress.

This however should be looked at more as China’s willingness to avoid obstacles to ongoing Beijing-Vatican talks rather than a clear sign of an improvement in relations.

However, in the context of the talks, much of Chinese media speculation and many scholars draw parallels with the situation in Vietnam. But different interpretations of what is referred to as the Vietnam Model make the situation rather complicated.

Wang Yiwei, the director of the Institute of International Affairs and the Centre for European Union Studies at Renmin University, told the media in December, “Beijing and the Vatican are very likely to adopt the 2010 agreement between Vietnam and the Vatican, which means that the Vatican will superficially appoint the bishops, but Beijing will assign the bishop candidates in advance.”

But such an explanation is totally unacceptable to the Church. Even if the future possibility of an agreement between China and the Vatican is put aside, such an understanding of the deal between Vietnam and the Vatican is far from becoming a reality.

Quite a number of bishops have been appointed to the 26 dioceses in Vietnam. The answer to the question of how many of them have been assigned by the government is none at all.

The majority of the newly appointed bishops in Vietnam have graduated from seminaries overseas. Most of them were in Rome or France, with quite a number also in the United States of America.

Anthony Lam, from the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, says that among his Vietnamese priest friends the belief is that all the bishops appointed in Vietnam are legally consulted and investigated according to Canon Law before being appointed by the Holy See.

Lam adds that for any bishop to claim that he was selected by the government would be interpreted as a great insult and absolutely unacceptable to the Catholics in his diocese.

He adds that to the best of his knowledge all that happens is that the Holy See informs the Vietnamese government a few days in advance when appointing a bishop.

In reality, for the last seven years the Vietnamese government has always given its endorsement and respects the appointments. 

When Pope Francis made Archbishop Nguyen van Nhon a cardinal on 4 January 2015, the government also extended its congratulations.

Lam says that in addition, on 25 January 2007 the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, made an official visit to the Vatican to meet with Pope Benedict XVI.

He was the first high-ranking Vietnamese leader to meet a pope since Vietnam broke diplomatic relations with the Holy See on 30 April 1975, when the war ended.

Lam points out that the next positive sign was the beginning of the canonisation process for the late Francis Xavier Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan, who died in 2002.

He said it is important to remember that Cardinal Nguyen had suffered 13 years of imprisonment under the Vietnamese regime, but the government took a low profile, remaining open and tolerant in its approach to the canonisation.

Lam insists that Chinese scholars must take heed of these events in comparing what is happening with the Church in their country with Vietnam.

The Church in Vietnam is an important pillar of the Catholic Church in Asia and, with more than 2,000 seminarians and novices, it is one of the three great sources of vocations. The other two are South Korea and India.

Compared with them, the Church in greater China is left far behind. Vietnam is a Church that can be learned from.

Lam concludes by asking scholars not to involve themselves in groundless speculation regarding the Church in Vietnam.

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