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A trial balloon hanging in the wind

Pope sees Vatican-China deal as uniting Catholics for the good of their country in a spirit of service and love
A trial balloon hanging in the wind

A Catholic worshipper attends Mass at the government-sanctioned South Cathedral in Beijing on Sept. 27. Pope Francis called on Sept. 26 for all Chinese Catholics to reconcile while admitting that a historic deal with Beijing on nominating bishops might have caused confusion. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)

Published: October 01, 2018 08:14 AM GMT
Updated: October 02, 2018 09:27 AM GMT

The provisional agreement between China and the Vatican on the appointment of bishops was signed in Beijing on Sept. 22. Credit needs to be given where it is due: the representative of the Chinese government falls under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which, traditionally, is able to adopt a more liberal attitude even as domestic policy tightens its discipline.

The agreement in no way implies a change in the brutal enforcement of the new laws on religions, in force since February. The Chinese government can even use its official accord with Rome to force all Catholics to enter the "patriotic" framework of the Communist Party's official policy. This has weakened the position of underground priests.

Nevertheless, the agreement was presented as a victory for Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the entire world was invited to welcome it. There is little doubt that this first sign of agreement between Rome and Beijing had been expected for a long time now, but is it so important? The Chinese media, for their part, have reported little on it.

What do we know of this agreement? Three elements have been explicitly revealed:

  1. The seven illicit bishops appointed without Rome's agreement, three of whom were excommunicated, have reconciled with the Holy See after tendering official apologies. This is a victory for the Chinese government and a source of comfort for the bishops involved. However, it is seen as a weakening of Roman authority by underground Catholics, who cannot understand this about-face by the Holy See. From the standpoint of Chinese psychology, it's an intolerable loss of face, fueling fears of increased sanctions. If the Vatican-Beijing dialogue can be compared to a match between two football squads, the pope's whites allowed Beijing's reds to shoot the ball first and even let them score their first goal.
  2. The pope accepts the Chinese "democratic" process for electing bishops. Priests, monks and lay persons of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association of the diocese take part in the election. Their candidate is presented to the Chinese bishops' conference. The accord stipulates that the elected candidate will be presented to the Holy See for the final approval of the pope. The agreement states that the pope will then be able to exercise a veto right if the candidate is not suitable. It's a win for the pope if this provision is confirmed in practice. This, however, is immediately belied since the Holy See needs to recognize seven bishops appointed without its agreement and even, in some cases, despite its explicit refusal. This internal contradiction says a lot about the real scope of the agreement. The effect of the first goal scored by the Chinese considerably weakens the white team's defense. It's true that in the church's view it's not a fight but a friendly, respectful act.
  3. The apostolic district of Chengde in Hebei province has been elevated to the rank of voting diocese of the Bishopric of Beijing. Will the ecclesiastic regions of 1946 be restored? The Chengde territory is now bigger. The agreement presents this change as the work of the pope. That would be the first time in decades that the pope would have intervened in mapping Chinese dioceses … That's a win for Guo Jincai, one of the reconciled bishops, who has just built a prestigious and costly cathedral. Is there a political aim behind the new prestige granted to the bishop of Chengde?

Chengde is the site of the summer palace of the emperors of China. It is in that palace that, in the early 18th century, Emperor Kangxi welcomed the delegate of the Holy See, Charles-Thomas Maillard de Tournon. The emperor did not understand the requests of the delegate. He found it very inappropriate for the jiaohuang (the emperor of religion and a traditional Chinese rendition of the word "pope") to come and meddle in China's internal affairs.

Shortly after the audience, Tournon officially published the pope's decree banning Chinese Christians from practicing ancestor worship, judged superstitious. In fact, the ritual meant absolute obedience to the sovereign, following the Confucian norm. Tournon was immediately banned to Macao, where he received the cardinal's hat from the pope. The honor conferred today upon the bishop of Chengde could be interpreted as a historical revenge against Roman demands, still seen as political interference that calls the absolute power of the party into question.

Rome, on the other hand, explains that the aim of the present agreement is, above all, pastoral, and that it wishes to foster unity between all Catholics in China.

Given the fact that Pope Francis supports this agreement, which he has always strongly desired, this must be viewed as an act of humility that he is inviting the church to demonstrate towards a rich, powerful China. His goal is evidently not to seek a compromise with the new exploiters of the Chinese people. The church has often been reproached for choosing the stronger side. Perhaps this is once more the case with Vatican politics, which has to take into account the place China occupies today in the life of the world. However, Pope Francis' objective is in line with the spirit of the Gospel: to enable all of China's Catholics to unite for the good of their country in a spirit of service and love.


An iceberg with a silent underside

What has been revealed to us about the agreement is just the tip of the iceberg. What is there below the water? From the thrust of the stated measures, it can be concluded that the Holy See recognizes the legality of the Chinese Episcopal Conference since it shall have to take into consideration the candidates for the bishopric that it presents. Should it then be concluded that the some 30 underground bishops will be invited to join this conference which, in fact, is still dominated by the Patriotic Association? Is their right to refuse recognized by the church? If not, the risk would be that underground bishops might become doubly clandestine, to both the state and the church.

There would be a risk of a split by Catholics most faithful to the church. Does the agreement include a clause laying out the role of the Patriotic Association? Is it positive lay participation in the practical management of dioceses and churches? Is the authority of the bishop in religious matters respected?

Recognition of the new Diocese of Chengde begs another major question. According to the public version of the agreement, the pope is the creator of this new diocese. Does that mean the Holy See is now beginning to take into account the new administrative distribution of the dioceses? In the Roman pontifical directory, China has 144 dioceses created by Rome. The new administrative distribution of the dioceses, established under the aegis of the Patriotic Association, reduces the number of dioceses to 96. Given China's evolution, the reorganization seems quite reasonable. However, maintaining the old dioceses could cause disorder and divisions, with priests able to refer to the authority that suits their interests rather than the overall good of the diocese.

The new administrative divisions respond quite logically to the development of new administrative centers and the reduced number of priests. From 1950, most of the dioceses run by foreign bishops and missionaries have seen their priests dwindle by two thirds.

Recurring bouts of repression up to the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution reduced the number of priests even further. On the heels of the new modernization policy launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, Chinese priests leaving forced labor camps or prisons were able to resume their ministries.

Their first concern was to teach Latin to some young people to prepare the next generation of priests. They were able to open the seminaries from 1982. Luckily, the vocations were many up to the end of the 20th century, but in certain dioceses only two or three priests were left.

In Hunan province, seven dioceses were combined into the single diocese of Changsha, the provincial capital. The bishop of Changsha has 20-odd priests. The current agreement probably contains a clause recognizing the new administrative map of the dioceses in China, which means increased control of the life of the church and even tougher living conditions for underground Catholics.

There is yet another crucial issue that is doubtless in the agreement. The Chinese government has repeated ceaselessly that any agreement with the Rome is possible only if the Vatican first breaks off diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Vatican representatives have often intimated that the Holy See would have no difficulty transferring its representation from Taipei to Beijing.

For the Holy See, a break with Taipei is only conceivable if the government of the People's Republic requests a resumption of diplomatic relations, which it broke off in 1951 by unceremoniously dismissing then papal nuncio Antonio Riberi. Diplomatic ties had been established with China in 1942 and the nuncio resided in Nanking, China's capital under the nationalist government of the Kuomintang.

Riberi remained in Nanking under the new People's Government and did not follow Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan while awaiting the decisions of the new government. The new government chased him shamelessly out to Hong Kong, dubbing him a representative of the Vatican's imperialism. Fifty years later, in 2000, the Vatican was again roundly insulted for canonizing 120 martyrs from China, some of whom, it seems, had played along with French imperialism.

The memory of the humiliations to which China was subjected up to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 is still fresh in the minds of Chinese leaders. The present Chinese authorities are certainly not feverishly pursuing diplomatic ties with the Vatican, even if, ultimately, this could be in its interest.

China could well refrain from demanding that the Vatican break relations with Taipei. The free play of the church in Taiwan provides a concrete link with Catholics on the continent and favors union between the island and the mainland.

The cultural and social service of Catholics in Taiwan bears witness to the church's love and respect for the Chinese people. Since the Vatican II Concilium 60 years ago, the church in Taiwan has been working effectively to become more Chinese by producing an expression of faith in the Chinese language and culture. In the absence of diplomatic relations with Beijing, Taiwan remains the only part of Chinese territory where the church can fully express its love for the Chinese people. Breaking with Taiwan would be suicidal for the church in China.

When one wishes to fly over a tourist site in a hot-air balloon, one first sends a test balloon to check the direction and strength of the wind. This is perhaps what has just happened in Beijing. Let us hope that the few articles of the accord that have been published will not spark a destructive typhoon in the church that would delay its development for decades. May the hot-air balloon take off on a peaceful flight over all China, from Canton to Harbin, from Taiwan to Kashgar, and follow the entire Silk Road from Beijing to Rome.

This is a translation of an article written in French by Father Jean Charbonnier for Eglises d'Asie (EDA).

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