CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 20 October 2018

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Holy See-China accord in the offing but at what cost?

HONG KONG (SE): An accord between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China “is almost made” and could be signed in the coming months, thereby opening a new phase in the relations between them, according to a senior Vatican source informed on the negotiations between the two sides.
 
Quoting sources, the Jesuit magazine, America, reported that the negotiations reached this crucial stage following the visit by a five-person delegation from the Holy See led by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli to Beijing for another meeting of the Joint Working Group (JWG) last December. The group has met around 12 times, alternately in Beijing and the Vatican, and the two sides reached an agreement on a framework document regarding the nomination of bishops.
 
This information is nothing new to the Church in Hong Kong. In an article released on 25 January 2017, the feast day of the Conversion of St. Paul in 2017, John Cardinal Tong Hon, then bishop of Hong Kong, had said this in clear terms: “After years of dialogue and negotiation, both China and the Holy See have already reached a consensus on the problem of appointing bishops. The agreement on the matter of the appointment of bishops between the Holy See and China could be considered a milestone in terms of the development of relations between both sides since 1951. Based on this agreement, the problems of the future of the CCPA [Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association], the legitimacy of the illegitimate bishops in the official Church community, the recognition of the bishops of the unofficial Church by Beijing and the establishment of the Bishops’ Conference of the Church in China are going to be resolved” (Sunday Examiner, 12 February 2017).
 
The article in America went on to note that, after considerable reflection and investigation, Pope Francis is expected to sign a decree that lifts the excommunication on the three bishops and grants pardon to all seven illicit bishops and recognises them as legitimate bishops in the Catholic Church and as ordinaries in the seven dioceses where they now reside. Each of the seven bishops has already asked the pope for pardon and has requested reconciliation with him and the universal Church.
 
The recent developments have triggered reports and comments in Catholic media and even in such secular publications as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. 
 
Retired bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, believes that what the Vatican has done is a cowardly surrender before the communist government of the Peoples Republic of China, the abandonment of faithful Catholics and rewarding renegades and people excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
 
In an editorial published by UCAN, Jesuit Father Michael Kelly states that “until very recently, the Vatican followed a procedure where it appointed “underground bishops,” so suspicious was it of anyone—ordinary Catholic, cleric, religious or bishop—who cooperated with the openly recognized and registered Catholic communities. This created a circumstance that has now come back to bite the Vatican and is vividly instance in the present kerfuffle.”
 
But, Father Kelly says, the issues in China go deeper and the “allegation is that these changes put the Church in the hands of the Chinese government whose agents are those to be newly appointed. And they are ‘excommunicants’ and not worthy of the positions entrusted to them.”
 
Father Kelly further suggests that the risk is not that the Church will increasingly come under the government’s control. It already is completely—whether in the official or unofficial Church. “The risk in the moves now being made by the Vatican is that they will split the Church in China deeply—those who accept that the Communist Party really does run China, and those who believe only stubborn resistance is the way to go.”
 
According to sources, at the next JWG session to be held in the Vatican, the head of the Holy See’s delegation will hand the papal decree pardoning and legitimising the seven bishops to his Chinese counterpart, who will take it back to the authorities in Beijing. If all goes according to plan, that should set the stage for the signing of the accord, at a place and time to be determined. “It is a suffered accord; it is not a good one, it is not the one we would like, but it is the best that we can get at this moment,” the article in America elaborates. 
 
The Holy See pushed hard for this accord for several reasons, including the fact that it feared that if it did not reach an agreement on the nomination of bishops there was a high risk that Beijing would appoint its own bishops to the vacant dioceses and thus compromise the future of the Church in China, as well as the possibility of reconciliation between the unofficial and official communities.
 
America notes that the signing of an agreement would signify a consequential shift in how China regards the Catholic Church. In the 16th and 17th centuries Catholicism was respected in China, but in the succeeding centuries the Church was seen as allied with the foreign powers that humiliated China, and still today, in the eyes of many at the political level, it is viewed in this light. 
 
An accord would open the prospect of a better understanding of the Catholic Church and lead to exchanges at the cultural and geopolitical levels. Above all, it opens the path to a new life for the Catholic Church in China and the overcoming of divisions that were caused within it by the political interference of the state. 
 
There are about 100 dioceses in China: 98 according to the government, 144 (112 dioceses plus other administrative regions) according to the Holy See. There are more than 100 bishops in China today (around 70 of them in the official Church, and some 30 in the unofficial), and all but seven of them—the illicit seven—are now in communion with the Holy See and serving an estimated Catholic population of between 10.5 and 12 million faithful. 

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