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Beijing-Holy See relations neither on earth nor as it is in heaven

HONG KONG (UCAN): The Holy See is not seeking to form diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, but it does have a focus on forming a relationship that could resolve the thorny issue of the being able to appoint bishops according to the laws and traditions of the Church.
Yet this relationship, which is neither on earth nor as it is in heaven, has been vexing the Vatican for decades.
Old China hands know that even this goal has a long way to go, despite talks that have taken place between the two parties, which picked up pace during 2016 after the establishment of a working team in April, but seem to have gone off the boil this year.
“I have been telling people publicly the rumours are wrong in the press that say diplomatic relations will be set up,” Bishop Stephen Lee Bun-sang, from Macau, said in an interview.
He reiterated that ongoing negotiations are focussing on an agreement on the appointment of bishops.
“Cardinal Tong (from Hong Kong) has said, which I agree totally with, negotiation is the first step on the long, long journey of the diplomatic development between the two,” Bishop Lee, who wrote his doctoral thesis on China-Vatican relations, said.
The latest round of closed-door negotiations, the first in 2017, took place from March 20 to 22 in Beijing. It was not announced if a preliminary agreement has been made, indeed the Vatican has strongly hinted that there may never be any formal announcement of a deal.
In a second article on the current round of China-Vatican relations published on February 9, the bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, called a possible agreement on bishops’ appointments a milestone in the normalisation of China-Vatican relations—although it would by no means be the end of the process.
Bishop Lee noted that there are many issues that must be resolved and some are not mentioned in either of Cardinal Tong’s two articles.
He singled out the problem the Vatican has with the National Congress of Catholic Representatives, which is a government body that meets every five years or so and plays a powerful part in controlling Church affairs.
Comprised of bishops, priests, sisters and laypeople, the congress is the highest governing body of the Church, sitting above the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association—an organisation that monitors Church affairs on behalf of the Communist Party—and the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China in the pecking order.
The bishops’ conference in China is unique, as unlike its counterparts throughout the world, it is a government and not a Church body.
The Vatican does not recognise these three national Church bodies that place their own authority above that of the pope in Church affairs—something not found in the Catholic Church structures.
The concluding statement of the ninth National Congress for the Catholic Representatives, held in Beijing from December 27 to 29, stated that one of the three core requirements was to keep the National Congress as the unchangeable foundation of the Church in China.
Bishop Lee explained that one driver is money and another is jobs, with employees in all those structural bodies coming from provincial, city and county levels.
He posited that this is one reason why they all are against any agreement being made with the Vatican, as they would be out of a job.
A researcher in Beijing who asked not to be named, said that he does not expect any significant breakthrough on China-Vatican relations in 2017.
He added that the full focus in China is on the 19th plenary congress of the Communist Party later this year, where the top leadership of the party for the coming five years will be named, including a wildly expected second term for the chairperson, Xi Jinping.
Meanwhile, even as talks are limping along, Beijing is tightening its grip on the Church.
Seminars on what is dubbed Sinicisation, a process designed to make the Church more Chinese, have been held over the past two months in Beijing and in other provinces, including Hebei, Hunan and Jiangsu.
Sinicisation of religion is a directive spelled out at a rare National Conference on Religious Works held by the party in Beijing in April last year.
Unlike the past, when the seminars were held in Beijing for clergy and lay leaders in provincial Church bodies across China, leading to the same old faces turning up each time, the latest ones are aimed at reaching more grassroots Catholics.
Content from recent seminars stresses political aspects and national security issues, such as resisting infiltration through the Internet, religious publications, clergy returned from abroad and high schools.
On April 17, a seminar was held in Beijing to commemorate the city’s late Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan, who was a former vice chairperson of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the top advisory body to the national government.
In May, there will be two separate commemorative events for the centenary of the birth of Bishop Zong Huaide, from Zhoucun, and Bishop Dong Guangqing, from Hankou.
All three were symbolic figures that the Vatican did not recognise at the time when they were made bishops during the 1950s and 1970s.
Although the Franciscan Bishop Dong eventually did receive recognition from the Vatican, the other two were never recognised.
Over recent years, Beijing has offered few olive branches to the Vatican, instead “creating discontent among the people in Shanghai, Mindong and most of China,” one senior Church figure commented.
Beginning with a cross-removal campaign in late 2013, the authorities in Zhejiang province have taken a hardline approach, demanding surveillance cameras be installed in all Protestant and Catholic churches by the end of March.
Around Holy Week, Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin, from Mindong, and Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin, from Wenzhou, both from the unofficial community of the Church without recognition from the government, were taken away from their dioceses on April 7 and 12, preventing them from celebrating one of the most important feasts on the liturgical calendar.
Conversely, Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, from Shanghai, whose freedom has been restricted since 2012 following his ordination when he publicly declared he was quitting the Patriotic Association, appeared in Mindong to concelebrate Easter Mass with Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, a government-appointed bishop whom the Vatican does not recognise.
This aroused discontent among the Catholic people, with some referring to it as blasphemous.
“Given Bishop Ma still has house arrest status, a cross-border concelebration in Fujian province certainly was not something that the religious officials in Shanghai alone could decide. It needed approval and coordination from a high level of government,” a Shanghai-based Church person said.
Bishop Zhan is one of the seven government-backed bishops whom the Vatican does not recognise. Pope Francis was reportedly considered pardoning them on the occasion of Year of Mercy in 2016, but in the wash up it did not happen.
As Cardinal Tong notes, “More time and patience will be needed” for the issue to be finally resolved.

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