Has the Holy See Surrendered to the Chinese Communist Party?

COMMENTARY: The decision to appoint Bishop Joseph Shen Bin to the Diocese of Shanghai is a massive humiliation for the Holy See and the utter failure of the centerpiece of the Holy Father’s China policy.

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims from China at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on June 28, 2017.
Pope Francis waves to pilgrims from China at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on June 28, 2017. (photo: Vatican Media )

Does the Holy See’s stand-down in the Shanghai standoff signal surrender in the Sino-Vatican relationship? An unusual interview arranged by the secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, suggests as much. 

On Saturday, Pope Francis appointed Bishop Joseph Shen Bin to the Diocese of Shanghai, the most important diocese in mainland China. Bishop Shen Bin now occupies the cathedra where Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Me was once enthroned. Cardinal Kung (1901-2000), appointed bishop of Shanghai in 1950, was imprisoned by the communist Chinese in 1955 and incarcerated for 30 years before being released into exile. Pope St. John Paul II named Kung a cardinal in pectore (secretly) in his first consistory for new cardinals in 1979, only revealing he did so in 1991.

Bishop Shen Bin takes a collaborative approach to the Chinese communist regime. The official Vatican announcement of his appointment includes this most unusual bit of biographical information: “Since 2022, Mons. Shen Bin is also the president of the organization called the ‘College of Chinese Catholic Bishops.’” That would be the illegitimate regime-erected Chinese bishops’ conference. 

In 2018, the Holy See and China, or, in reality, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — the CCP is responsible for all religious regulations in China — signed a still-secret agreement on the appointment of bishops. Conflicts between the CCP and the Church, the regime-run “Patriotic Association” and China’s underground Catholics, meant that many Chinese dioceses are without bishops. Shanghai had been vacant for 10 years. 

Though the text has never been revealed, it has been widely reported as allowing the CCP to choose candidates for bishops, which then have to get the Holy Father’s approval. In principle, while this grants the CCP the critical role in the selection of bishops, it ought to guarantee that all bishops are in communion with Rome.

The secret agreement was renewed in 2020 for two years, and in the 2022, it was extended for two more years. The agreement has coincided with a greater persecution of Catholics in Chinachildren not permitted to go to Mass, for example, and increasing harassment of bishops expressly loyal to Rome. 

After the renewal last October, the CCP violated the agreement twice. In November, Bishop John Peng Weizhao was named auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Jiangxi, which the CCP considers a diocese but which is not recognized as such by Rome. The Holy See was not notified in that case.

Then, in April this year, the CCP transferred Bishop Shen Bin from the Diocese of Haimen to Shanghai, also without the Vatican’s prior knowledge or approval.

The flouting of the secret accord, and the deteriorating status of religious liberty in China, has led senior Vatican diplomats to frankly concede that the agreement is “not the best deal possible” and that, “in the context of Chinese domestic politics … [the Holy See] can only achieve so much.”

Regarding Shanghai, after keeping quiet since April, Pope Francis decided to stand down on Shanghai and accept the bishop chosen by the Communist Party for China’s premier diocese. The decision was taken carefully over months, as it is a massive humiliation for the Holy See and the utter failure of the centerpiece of the Holy Father’s China policy.

The Chinese forced the hand that Pope Francis dealt himself when he agreed to the CCP taking the initiative on episcopal appointments. In transferring Bishop Shen Bin to Shanghai, the CCP created a crisis to their advantage. Without a papal mandate, should the priests of Shanghai regard Bishop Shen Bin as their bishop? Should they conform to his instructions? Does he have any authority in Shanghai whatsoever if the only approval for his move comes from the CCP? 

If Pope Francis did not recognize the transfer and approve it after the fact, it would have been impossible for the Diocese of Shanghai to properly function for the next decades. So the Holy Father capitulated.

Faced with such a complete catastrophe, Cardinal Parolin put out a lengthy press statement in the form of an “interview” with his own news agency, Vatican News.

In addition, as is customary on occasions where the Holy Father’s foreign policy runs into difficulties, the court stenographer of the pontificate, Gerry O’Connell of the Jesuit America magazine, published his own quasi-official justification of the decisions taken.

Cardinal Parolin explained that Pope Francis decided to give in on Shanghai “in view of the greater good of the diocese and the fruitful exercise of the pastoral ministry of the bishop.” 

Shanghai had not had a bishop in 10 years, Pope Francis had already agreed to choose from candidates chosen by the CCP, and Bishop Shen Bin was already in place. As the Holy See has already agreed to renew the secret accord twice when it was not working, it seemed best to swallow the communist provocation and give agreement after the fact.

That much was already clear. But Cardinal Parolin had other things on his mind: namely, to give up entirely on expecting Beijing to respect the freedom of the Church and simply accept whatever the CCP was willing to offer. He suggested that perhaps it was time for a “stable liaison office” between the Holy See and China be opened, as it would be “extremely helpful” for ongoing dialogue. Having Vatican diplomats on the ground would make it easier for Beijing to consult with the Holy See — or to let them know more quickly when consultations were not going to take place.

It is the strongest statement of Cardinal Parolin to date moving toward formal diplomatic relations — “a stable liaison office” would presumably be something short of a full nunciature. The upshot of the Shanghai situation would be that Beijing would be rewarded with an upgrade in diplomatic contacts; in essence, total surrender by the Holy See on the appointment of bishops altogether: If the CCP appoints bishops without consultation, their man gets papal approval. And if they do it brazenly enough in Shanghai, they get an upgrade in relations. 

“The cardinal’s request is not new,” reported O’Connell. “The Vatican has proposed this on several occasions in bilateral meetings with the Chinese delegations, but Beijing has so far not been willing to permit this. On the contrary, sources say it has wanted the Holy See to close its study office in Hong Kong, something the Vatican would only accept to do if it could open an office in Beijing.”

So it may that the CCP’s aggression in Shanghai will result in Pope Francis downgrading Hong Kong.

Bishop Joseph Shen Bin will not be the last bishop appointed without the Holy See’s agreement. Diplomats on the ground in Beijing may give Rome a better vantage point the next time what is unacceptable is accepted.