Cardinal Joseph Zen Zekiun

The Vatican has asked two Chinese Catholic bishops in the underground church who have been faithful to Rome to step down in favour of two bishops of the Patriotic Church, which is controlled by the Chinese government.

It sounds outrageous. And in fact Cardinal Joseph Zen Zekiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, was scathing. In a Facebook post he wrote: “So, do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all what they are doing in recent years and months.”

The reality of the situation, however, is more complex. Catholic News Agency gives a different version. In December last year, and for the second time since October, Rome asked the bishop of Shantou, Peter Zhuang Jianjian, who is 88, to resign. His successor would be Bishop Huang Bingzhang, a member of the Chinese Parliament who had been excommunicated in 2011 for having been ordained without permission from the Pope. In exchange for his resignation, a three-member commission made up of the Holy See, the Patriotic Church and the Chinese government, offered Bishop Zhuang the possibility of naming three candidates for vicar general. Zhuang was not convinced.

The other case involved the bishop of Mindong, in Fujian province, Joseph Guo Xijin, who is also a member of the underground Church. The Vatican delegation asked him to become the coadjutor of a bishop of the Patriotic Church, Vincent Zhan Silu. If he agreed, according to the canon law of the Catholic Church, he would succeed the bishop when he stepped down – giving him the hope of becoming the bishop at some stage.

Cardinal Zen criticised these developments and declared that the Pope had not been well informed by his team. But the Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, denied this in a press statement:

“The Pope is in constant contact with his collaborators, in particular in the Secretariat of State, on Chinese issues, and is informed by them faithfully and in detail on the situation of the Catholic Church in China and on the steps in the dialogue in progress between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, which he follows with special attention. It is therefore surprising and regrettable that the contrary is affirmed by people in the Church, thus fostering confusion and controversy”.

In a well-informed overview of the topic in Crux, journalist John Allen explains the difficulties of negotiating with the Chinese Communist government. These have followed a familiar pattern over the past 25 years, he says. In stage one, there are encouraging signs of a thaw in relations such as the release of an imprisoned bishop. In stage two, progress stalls when the government bulldozes a church. In stage three, the two parties have gone back to square one.

Allen’s theory is that the lack of progress is due to the influence of hard-liners in the government elite, who spurn Western influences, of whom the Pope is a symbol. And these are the people in the driver’s seat in the State Administration for Religious Affairs,

Such are the turbulent seas in which Rome must navigate. A rupture would have unfortunate consequences. The first of them is the welfare of 10 to 15 million Chinese Catholics. Even if they are not suffering physical persecution – at least most of them – their freedoms are restricted and they are treated as second-class citizens. If bilateral relations worse, they are the ones who will suffer.

Second, Allen says there is a diplomatic reason. In the light of the importance of China on the world stage and its growing military, economic and political influence, the Vatican cannot ignore it. “The Vatican understands that if you’re not talking directly to Beijing, you’re basically out of the loop,” says Allen.

Third, Rome is keenly aware of the China’s huge potential as a mission country. The Chinese are thirsty for God. Confucianism is more a moral code than a religion and after decades of official atheism, Christianity is growing rapidly. At the moment, Pentecostalism is drawing the most conversions—it may have between 60 and 100 million followers. Rome wants to do all that it can to create a legal framework for fruitful missionary work.

Relations with China have to be carefully nurtured, but without ignoring the clergy and the faithful who have suffered under Communist repression. “The Church will never forget the past and present trials and sufferings of Chinese Catholics,” says Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, in an interview with Vatican Insider about the current controversy.

But he insisted that polemics were not helpful. “It is legitimate to have different views over the most appropriate responses to the problems of the past and present. That is entirely reasonable. Having said that, I think that no personal point of view can be considered as an exclusive interpreter of what is good for Chinese Catholics. 

Benedict XVI exemplified this spirit of conciliation in his 2007 Letter to Chinese Catholics in which he wrote: “The solution to existing problems cannot be pursued via an ongoing conflict with the legitimate civil authorities.”

“In Pope Francis’ pontificate, the ongoing negotiations move exactly along these lines: constructive openness to dialogue and fidelity to the genuine Tradition of the Church,” said Parolin.

The ultimate objective is for Chinese Catholics to be able to live their faith freely and contribute to society. If, in order to achieve this, says Parolin, “someone is asked to make a sacrifice, small or great, it must be clear to everyone that this is not the price of a political exchange, but falls within the evangelical perspective of a greater good, the good of the Church of Christ. The hope is that, when God wills it, we won’t have to speak of ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ Bishops, ‘clandestine’ and ‘official’ Bishops in the Church in China, but about meeting among brothers and sisters, learning the language of collaboration and communion again.”

The desire of the Church is to preserve communion.

“In China there are not two Churches, but two communities of faithful called to follow a gradual path of reconciliation towards unity,” Parolin contends. Therefore, Catholics should not bunker down into a never-ending warfare, but find pastoral solutions which will permit the faithful to walk hand in hand and to evangelise. Once the fundamental issue of the bishops is resolved, the remaining difficulties will not keep Chinese Catholics from living in communion with each other and with the Pope.

“This is the important thing, so long-awaited and desired already by Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI and today pursued with far-sightedness by Pope Francis.”

Luis Luque writes for Aceprensa. This article has been republished from Aceprensa with permission. Translation by MercatorNet.