Kings of the East

Kings of the East (China) & Vatican Near Pivotal Deal on Bishops

For Rome, the deal would deliver a historic breakthrough in getting the Communist government in Beijing to recognize the pope’s jurisdiction as head of the Catholic Church in China. But China would retain influence over new bishop appointments. The agreement would also end Vatican approval for ordinations of underground bishops.

 

BEIJING—The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Hong Kong signaled that the Vatican and Beijing are nearing an accord over how Chinese bishops are picked, a key step toward “normalizing” bilateral ties marred by six decades of estrangement.

In a recent essay, Cardinal John Tong didn’t give details of the proposed deal, but expressed optimism that Rome wouldn’t compromise on religious principles in trying to resolve disputes over China’s insistence on having a state-controlled body appoint local bishops.

The Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, on Friday said the talks with Beijing were “a work in progress,” declining to comment on any timeline.

The continuing dialogue “implies” a shift in Beijing’s policy on the Catholic Church toward recognizing the pope as “the highest and final authority in deciding on the candidates for bishops in China,” wrote Cardinal Tong, the Bishop of Hong Kong, in an essay published on his diocese’s website on Thursday.

A deal, if concluded, would deliver a diplomatic breakthrough for Pope Francis, who has eagerly sought to heal a rift with Beijing that stretches back to 1951, when China’s officially atheist Communist Party cut diplomatic ties with the Vatican. The prospect of restoring diplomatic ties, however, remains a distant goal. The Communist Party has long been wary of religious groups, especially those with perceived foreign influences, as potential challengers to its political authority.

The negotiations, however, have stirred disquiet among some Chinese Catholics, who fear that a deal could hand Beijing a public-relations victory and betray the so-called underground church in China, where some members have suffered imprisonment or other punishment for defying government control.

“The essay underscores the divergence of opinion within the Church,” said Wang Meixiu, a Catholicism specialist at the state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “There’s an element of trying to win over mainland Catholics, and also to clarify, to the Chinese government, the Church’s position on various matters under dispute.”

China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a state-controlled body that supervises the mainland Catholic community but isn’t recognized by the Vatican, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Wall Street Journal reported in October that the Vatican and Beijing reached a compromise on the appointment process for Chinese bishops, and that the deal was pending approval from Pope Francis before being tabled for a final decision in Beijing. Cardinal Tong’s essay represents the most comprehensive public statement on the issue from senior Catholic clergy.

For Rome, the deal would deliver a historic breakthrough in getting the Communist government in Beijing to recognize the pope’s jurisdiction as head of the Catholic Church in China. But China would retain influence over new bishop appointments. The agreement would also end Vatican approval for ordinations of underground bishops.

This would end “the crisis of a division between the open and underground communities in the Church in China,” and allow “these two communities will gradually move toward reconciliation,” Cardinal Tong wrote in his essay, dated Jan. 25.

The cardinal, however, acknowledged that a deal would still defer some thorny issues, including the role of Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the fate of so-called illegitimate Chinese bishops ordained without papal approval, as well as the legal status of underground Chinese bishops loyal to Rome, who currently operate without government approval.

The Vatican and China have engaged in quiet negotiations since the late 1980s, and under St. John Paul II, adopted an informal arrangement for the mutual recognition of bishops. Over the past decade, Chinese authorities have periodically violated that understanding by unilaterally ordaining bishops without Rome’s permission.

“A resolution to this issue would greatly improve the Catholic Church’s image in China,” Vincent Zhan Silu, a so-called illegitimate bishop who was ordained without a papal mandate in 2000, said on Friday. “The church’s power to evangelize would also grow.”

Since becoming pontiff in 2013, Pope Francis has publicly expressed a desire for better ties with China. Observers say he has avoided angering Beijing by refraining from criticism of the Chinese government’s human-rights record and declining to meet the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing accuses of seeking Tibetan independence.

In his essay, Cardinal Tong conceded that the deal represented a compromise, by accepting a limited form of religious freedom for Chinese Catholics. They would be able to appoint bishops in accordance with church doctrine but face curbs on their efforts to spread their faith, run schools or own property.

“The moral principle of the Church teaches us to choose the lesser of two evils,” Cardinal Tong wrote. “Therefore, under the teaching of the principle of healthy realism that Pope Francis teaches us, it is clear which path the Catholic Church in China ought to take.”

Some Chinese Catholics remain unconvinced.

“The Church seems too eager to achieve a breakthrough,” said John Mok Chit-wai, a 25-year-old teaching assistant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. If securing a deal with China means the Vatican will compromise on human-rights issues, then “the price seems too high.”

Source: Wall Street Journal

Leave a Reply