This Year’s Vatican-China Agreement Causes Widespread Consternation

Cardinal Joseph Zen says Pope Francis is being “deceived by his collaborators” and a “miracle” is needed, while Cardinal Pietro Parolin says an “act of faith” is required to make the deal work.

Christ the King Church in Shenzhen, China
Christ the King Church in Shenzhen, China (photo: Register Files)

VATICAN CITY — Among several Vatican stories that disturbed many of the faithful this year was the landmark provisional agreement signed between the Holy See and Beijing on the appointment of bishops.

Although the precise terms of the Sept. 22 accord remain secret, they are expected to stipulate that the power to appoint new bishops is to rest no longer with the Holy See but with the Chinese authorities. The Pope will be able to veto their choices, though not unlimitedly.

Also involved in the deal, which is subject to “periodic reviews,” is the lifting of the excommunications of eight bishops (one deceased) who had not been in full communion with Rome principally because the official, state-backed Church had appointed them without papal permission. 

Added to these concerns has been news that two bishops faithful to Rome — Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin of Mindong and Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou — were instructed to step aside in favor of bishops of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the country’s state-run church. The Pope asked them to do so as a gesture of obedience and “of sacrifice for the general situation of the Chinese Church.”

The Church in China has long been split between the “underground” Church, in full communion with Rome, and the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, loyal to the government and not the Vatican.

The Vatican hopes that, with these developments, a new process may begin, allowing “the wounds of the past to be overcome and leading to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics,” according to a statement released at the time of the agreement. It also hopes for a future that now favors the “common good of the Chinese people and to peace in the world.”

Speaking at a conference on Nov. 21, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State who has spearheaded the talks, defended the agreement as “an act of faith,” adding that the aim is “to avoid having bishops not in communion with the Holy See.”


Suppression Worsened

But the prospect of an agreement has divided Catholics in and outside China, with some fearing it would result in further suppression by Beijing, and others believing it favors rapprochement, including the re-establishment of Sino-Vatican diplomatic ties after a break of over half a century.

Supporters of the deal, such as Gianni Valente, a journalist close to Pope Francis, believe an orchestrated “global media campaign” has sought to sabotage the agreement, portraying it in a false and poor light. Valente gives as an example Bishop Zhuang Jianjian, who he insists is not part of the underground Church, as some reports have claimed.    

And yet since September, the situation does not appear to have improved but rather state repression of Catholics has worsened, according to reports. Just days after the signing of the agreement came news of crosses in churches being burned and replaced with objects including the Chinese flag and photos of Chinese leaders. A month later, state authorities destroyed two Marian shrines.

This week, a convent in the town of Qiqihar was partially destroyed by law enforcement agencies who entered the building shortly before midnight and ordered the nuns to leave within an hour.

The Holy See has been silent about these incidents, and believes instead that it will take time for relations to show the improvements they hope for. Outspoken critic Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, nevertheless remains implacably opposed to the deal.

Speaking to the Register recently, he pointed to three problems he sees in the agreement. The first relates to vagueness over exactly how the bishops will be chosen and the fact that the Pope will only have the last word on the matter. “The government chooses the names. He will be forced to veto, but how long can he go on vetoing?” Cardinal Zen wondered. “It will be embarrassing for present and future popes. It doesn’t solve the problem.”

His second concern is the recognition — yet to occur — of the seven previously excommunicated bishops as heads of dioceses. “That is even more terrible,” Cardinal Zen said, adding that when it happens, he will have to “go into silence” because “I will not go against the Holy Father.”

But the third “most terrible” aspect, he said, is the fate of the underground Church. The Vatican is “forcing them in to the Patriotic Association like a bird cage, and those who refuse have to retire,” a development which he calls “ridiculous.”


Married Bishops?

The cardinal said that members of the underground Church have for so long “showed their loyalty to the Holy Father, for so many years they suffered so much, but now they are being told to surrender.” It is as if “they’ve been stupid for all these years,” he continued, while “the other people, the Chinese Patriotic Association, are laughing. They are the winners.”

Cardinal Zen has previously called the agreement an “incredible betrayal” and has strenuously protested against it, travelling to Rome to deliver messages to the Pope in person.

Few other prominent voices of opposition are heard, but the cardinal insists many Chinese Catholics are as vehemently opposed to the deal as he is. In November, Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng called the agreement “preposterous” and a “slap in the face to millions of Catholics and other faithful religious people in China who have suffered real persecution” at the hands of the Patriotic Association. 

“They are so worried, they are so sad,” Cardinal Zen told the Register. “Many people will join the official [state-run] Church, but other people cannot do this,” he added. “In conscience, they refuse to do that because the official Church is objectively schismatic. So I think they will be very sad and many people will be very angry.”

Further concerns involve the lifting of seven bishops’ excommunications. According to Cardinal Zen, two of them, Paul Lei Shiyin and Joseph Liu Xinhong, are widely known to have children. “That is for certain, for a long time it’s public knowledge,” Zen said. The Vatican insists it is just rumor, and there is not sufficient evidence, but Cardinal Zen believes these are “just excuses because they want to surrender to the government.”

Added to this concern, given they are now meant to be true successors of the apostles, is that the two bishops may be married. The fact that some bishops in the Patriotic Association have been known to have wives has been an obstacle to rapprochement in the past. During the Cultural Revolution some priests were forced to marry, although celibacy is now observed in the official church.

Such a reality would be very grave, according to Cardinal Raymond Burke. “If it is true that one or more of the ‘reconciled’ bishops from the Patriotic Church in China are married, the Latin Church, by the recent accords with the government of China, has broken with apostolic tradition which has never permitted Bishops to be married, above all, out of respect for the example of Our Lord, the Great High Priest in whose person the bishop acts in a full way,” he told the Register.

“Such a fact, coupled with the open lack of respect for the authority of the Petrine Office on the part of some of the bishops, calls into question the canonical validity of the lifting of the excommunication which the bishops involved had justly incurred,” said Cardinal Burke, a former prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest court.

Neither Cardinal Parolin nor the two Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association bishops who attended the Youth Synod in October — one of whom, Joseph Guo Jincai, was one whose excommunication had been lifted — responded to Register inquiries about the allegations. Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples, said he did not know about the allegations but welcomed any documents that might confirm them.


“They Never Show Repentance”

But for Cardinal Zen, the “greater scandal” is that the bishops “always had a defiant attitude” toward the Holy See. “They never show repentance,” he said, and “even perform ordinations of priests and take part in ordinations of other bishops. So it’s incredible that the Holy See can recognize them all.”

Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute and the author of Bully of Asia: Why China's Dream is the New Threat to World Order, has noted that all seven bishops had been previously rejected by the Vatican as episcopal candidates for various reasons “having to do with personal morality, public actions, or both.”

In comments to the Register, Mosher said the Pope lifted the excommunications “even before the new agreement was signed.” But he believes this is “only a small part of the problem,” adding that Beijing rejected the Holy See’s original proposal for a “Vietnam model” in which Rome chooses the candidate from a list who is then ratified by the government.

Instead, Beijing has made it clear it will nominate candidates, and the Pope can only veto a limited number, he said. “It has also limited the amount of time that the Vatican has to respond once a candidate’s name is submitted,” Mosher added, echoing Cardinal Zen’s concerns. That the communist government will have the “final say” will lead to “more and more problematic bishops,” Mosher predicted.

A key reason for the Holy See pushing for the deal, according to senior Vatican sources, is the urgent need for bishops to fill an increasingly large number of vacant dioceses without an Ordinary. Of the 98 dioceses in the country, nearly half of them have no bishops and several older bishops are about to retire, according to Bishop Ma Yinglin, chairman of the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China. Sources say the Holy See is especially keen that these be filled with bishops in communion with Rome.

But Mosher pointed out that the Chinese Communist Party has, acting on its own, already “consolidated several sees” and so the Vatican should be concerned that “this is also their plan for other vacant sees as well.”  

“I don’t see any hope that things may change. We need a miracle,” said Cardinal Zen, who believes the Pope is being poorly advised. “He is courageously coming out and saying ‘I take responsibility,’” Zen said, “but I think he is being deceived by his collaborators. I don’t think those people deserve trust. They have their own agenda. Parolin has his own agenda.”

In his comments on Nov. 21, Cardinal Parolin said the Vatican hopes the “agreement works” and that “good will” on both sides will ensure the measures are implemented.

“It is not easy having years of complexity behind one,” he said, “but the journey we have taken together has generated more trust between the parties, even if it is difficult to strip away a mentality.”