Why Chinese Bishops Seek Communion With Rome — and Beijing

Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo, a Vatican consultant and regular visitor to China, discusses the Chinese bishops’ rationale for the impending rapprochement between the Vatican and the Chinese government.

Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo
Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo (photo: Bohumil Petrik/CNA)

ROME — The Catholic Church’s house in China has been divided for nearly 60 years between an official and an underground church. But many of China’s bishops, including those approved by the government, see that house already starting to fall into ruin unless the Vatican and China’s government reach a deal to reunify the episcopacy and reinvigorate the Chinese Church through one communion with Rome.

Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo, a priest from the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey,* is a full-time consultant to the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development who has traveled to China each year since 2008 to visit with the Church there and assist the Vatican’s efforts at reconciliation. Msgr. Figueiredo knows the problems China’s bishops have shared with him for the past 10 years and was entrusted with a heartfelt letter from the seven remaining illicitly ordained government bishops, not recognized by the Vatican, asking the Holy Father to restore them to full communion.

Since St. John Paul II, the Vatican’s explicit policy has recognized one Catholic Church in China, although the shepherds are divided between an official approved church and an underground one loyal to Rome but not recognized by the government. Approximately 60 bishops in China are recognized by both the Vatican and the Chinese government, while nearly 30 bishops are recognized by only the Vatican. Many dioceses, however, have no bishop. Both sides are reportedly near a deal that would include a papal pardon and regularize the remaining seven bishops recognized only by the government.

In this interview with the Register, Msgr. Figueiredo explains why a deal on the selection of bishops between the government and the Vatican is genuinely wanted in China and why Pope Francis may see an imperfect compromise as a necessary first step toward reviving Chinese Catholic evangelization.


Why is reconciling with the Vatican and gaining the Pope’s recognition important to these seven government-approved-but-illicitly-ordained bishops?

I’ve always perceived in these bishops, whether it was Pope Benedict or Pope Francis now, a real desire to be in communion with the See of Rome. I think the bottom line is that they do feel themselves ex-communicated, out of communion. That’s the bottom line. And I know — having spoken with them, having shared with them, having met with them — there’s a real suffering, and it’s a real pain to them. And so, I think that’s the deepest reason why they want communion with Rome.

There is another reason, as well, which I think is very, very key. They realize that without this communion, everything is really put on hold, and nothing develops.


What do you mean?

Well, there are serious problems in China, for instance, ecclesiastical. There are about 110 dioceses — I don’t know the exact figure — but a number of the dioceses are without bishops. So there’s no development really on those bishops. Everything is halted, in terms of selection, in terms of nomination, which is this long, long process. And it’s a limbo situation, with the one nominating and the other excommunicating. So it’s really in their interest to fill these dioceses, to have bishops in place and to care for the needs of the people, which is at the heart of the bishops’ concerns.

And the other thing that I’ve always noticed, for example, when we went to China last year — and we said we’d be looking at issues of marriage and morality in light of Amoris Laetitia — is these bishops will ask the most basic of questions in these areas without any setup or semblance of a marriage tribunal or anything like that in their dioceses. And so, I think they realize the potential that exists and exactly what they are lacking.

The big problem in China that comes up time and time again is formation: formation on every level, whether it’s seminarians, whether it’s religious sisters, whether it’s the bishops. Because where do they get their formation from? No one can go in, and, obviously, no one is going out, or if they do go out, they are these Chinese priests obviously from the official church, who have gone out and studied elsewhere, in Chicago or other places.

But the difficulty, as with many of these countries, where people go to the States or other countries, [is that] they may then end up staying in those countries. Every time we’ve been [in China], these bishops from the official church have requested assistance with formation, formation in the seminaries, formation with the bishops — especially, I would say, formation with sisters; you know, there’s a real fallout on the level of religious sisters now. It’s a real crisis, in terms of numbers of religious sisters; and numbers of seminarians — there’s going to be a priest crisis.

So all these different levels, I think, answers your question. For the Church to grow, for the Church to develop, for the Church not to stay stagnant and even regress, I think these bishops are understanding there’s a need for openness to the outside world, and, particularly, that means union with Rome.


Have you talked with these official bishops about how they view the importance of reconciling the underground Church and the government-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association? Have they brought this issue up?

They’ve certainly brought it up, because when we go to these meetings, whether it’s at the bishops’ conference or at the national seminary in Beijing, which is the main seminary, or we go to other places, for example, to churches in Beijing, to speak or to celebrate or whatever, it’s almost impossible to distinguish who are these Patriotic bishops and priests and faithful and who are the underground. Because I think there’s a lot more collaboration, or significantly more collaboration, than we know about or perceive.

I’ve been in meetings, I’ve given formation at the national seminary, such as ongoing formation to priests and religious sisters, where there’s just a mix of the Patriotic and underground there together. So I think there’s a lot more going on than we realize.

One of the big problems in China is that we’re talking about 1.4 billion people, which is a fifth of the world’s population. This is just a massive country to manage and organize. And it’s very provincial. What happens in one region, the exact opposite can be happening in another region.


Can you elaborate on that?

You know, there’s a lot of persecution. Does persecution exist? Does there exist a violation of human rights? All of these worries and concerns — have priests and bishops, religious faithful been martyred? Absolutely. On every single level, that has happened.

One of the difficulties, though, is that it sometimes tends to be very regional. So there’s an attack on churches, or they’re being destroyed, or crosses coming down. And it’s a particular region of China. And sometimes I think the view that we get is that it’s happening in the whole of China, which isn’t necessarily the case. It’s very difficult to understand who is actually leading that. Is it SARA (the State Administration for Religious Affairs)? Is it the local regional government? It’s very difficult. And who has the say; who has the final say? In some of those areas, it was the local regional government that ordered the crosses knocked down, and I think the whole of the Chinese government then gets blamed.

It’s the same in the United States, with what’s happening now with abortion laws or gender issues or marriage laws. What can be happening in Texas is completely different from what’s happening in Florida. And I think there’s a lot of confusion there.


Where do you sense China’s government is on this issue of the bishops?

My sense is strongly that the government, the Chinese administration government, is moving on this. I mean, I think there is goodwill at the national level to move on this, and, obviously, that’s happening here at the Vatican, too. There will be certain regions or places where there will be difficulties with the underground Church. The underground Church will continue to remain hidden. There will be persecutions, difficulties, but the opening is there; the goodwill is there.

We’re not going to have a perfect situation, and we can’t wait for that. I think that’s what’s being perceived now. We’re not going to wait until every single region comes on board when the country is 1.4 billion [people]. And I think it’s the way that Pope Francis is working and acting with the situation in Colombia: You know, it was paso a paso (“let’s take the first step”). That was his management there for peace negotiation, and I think that’s his modus operandi now in China. Now, obviously, this has been worked on for a number of years. And certainly the Chinese, from what’s coming from them … is positive. There’s no one else thus far that has really objected to this. And even one of the [state-run] papers is indicating the possibility of diplomatic relations.


If there’s a deal between the Vatican and the government, do you have any sense that it will also include the 30 underground bishops, or is that going to be a separate issue over time?

I have no specific knowledge of that, I’m not privy to that, but I would imagine it’s going to include all of them. I think you’re not going to get the seven bishops and the underground bishops without some sort of dialogue or inclusion or outreach to them.


Regarding Canon 337 (which prohibits civil authorities from having a role in the selection of bishops), do we have any other examples where the Pope has made exceptions to the rule?

I’m not absolutely certain on the one in Vietnam, but I think there’s something similar there with Vietnamese bishops, with the government and the Vatican [joining] on the approval of bishops. I don’t think this is going to be exactly the same model, but certainly it has happened in the past. And remember the salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church, absolutely, and we should also remember that the supreme legislator is the pontiff. I think what we are seeing here is an exercise of the supreme legislator, for the sake of healing schism, for the sake of communion.

Speaking for myself, not speaking for him, the Holy Father, in order to take that step towards healing and to healing schism, [is] bringing in these bishops who have shown goodwill. Every time I’ve come back from China — and I go every year — the bishops have reached out to me to express to the Holy Father, to even bring him letters and other indications of, their willingness. They’ve always said to me, “We would go to Rome tomorrow, if we had the permission to do that.”

But, obviously, they haven’t been able to do that up to now. So it’s not simply the Holy Father pushing something or imposing something. It’s not a one-sided negotiation effort. I believe that it really is very much from both sides. And I think the sticking point up to now has been the regime in Beijing, obviously, but it’s also been here in Rome.

We have figures like Cardinal Zen and others, who have objected, rightly so. They have their justifications, their reasons for doing that. But I think the Holy Father has now seen that the time is important to move and to really be conscious that we can’t stay where we are. We have the evangelicals in China who are growing in great numbers, and in some ways the Catholic Church just hasn’t grown in the same measures.


Does anybody have an idea as to what is to be done about the Patriotic Association?

From my perspective, it’s obviously a big problem; it’s a big issue. I spoke with some of these bishops and some of the officials at the bishops’ conference on issues such as abortion, the two-child family policy; and certainly in those areas, and I won’t hide this, they do back the government on those areas, because I think they feel they need to. They need to; because they’re part of [the Patriotic Association], there’s a loyalty to the government. I think that conversion, that opening, can only take place if there is a first step and there is dialogue that’s opened. Again, it’s very much I think within Pope Francis’ thinking: “We’re not going to wait until everything is absolutely perfect in order to say, well, we’re now going to approve these bishops.”

I think he’s looking for those first steps, and then to build on those in time. That’s why I think, you know, this is an initial step, it’s an important step, it’s a great step, it’s a very courageous step, because there will be great opposition, there’ll be obstacles and hurdles along the way. But I think it’ll have to be closely watched, closely monitored, closely followed as we go in time. But if we don’t take that step now, we run the risk that this could be again stalled for many more years to come.


Why are the Chinese so interested in this?

There’s the argument they want some recognition in the world from a major religion, from the Catholic Church. I think the big issue is that China is really changing, as well. It’s a country that in some ways is quite developed, and certainly the social fabric of society is changing. I was just speaking with some pf the local Chinese people. You know they have a more aging population. They have the one-child policy, which was in place for many years. And, speaking to some families, they were saying, “Well, who is going to look after our parents now?” And they’re realizing that the Church is a major player on a charitable level, I mean, setting up schools and hospitals and agencies that might look after people, and contributes to the social good of society. And I think that’s an important factor to look at.

I think there’s a realization that the Church has a contribution to make there. Traditionally in our Church, and it goes right back to the early Church, charity is the identity card of Christianity.

And if we’re allowed to move into those areas, it can begin to change the hearts of people. You know, one doesn’t need to be a Christian to recognize charity, because charity of itself carries the message of Christ. And that was the great desire of Mother Teresa: She always wanted to enter China, but she certainly didn’t want to go in to proselytize or change society or anything, but she wanted to go in to simply look after the people, because they’re the last ones — she’s done [charitable work] everywhere else. But she would be one of the first one to say every message of ours carries Christ.

So if this opening is going to allow, for example, more religious congregations to enter, which have been up to now barred really, and more in that sense, I think it could be a real contribution, then, to building on the Christian message coming into China. Little by little, step by step. But that’s how Christianity grows, I think.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.

Editor's note: a previous version of this article inaccurately stated that Msgr. Figeiredo was 'American-born.' His parents were actually living in Nairobi, Kenya at the time of his birth.