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An ecclesiological view of Sino-Vatican dialogue

If an agreement is made, China's church will enjoy essential freedom, but not complete freedom writes Cardinal John Tong
An ecclesiological view of Sino-Vatican dialogue

Cardinal John Tong Hon of Hong Kong has written a second commentary on what Beijing-Vatican talks may mean for the China church. (ucanews.com photo)

Published: February 10, 2017 09:21 AM GMT
Updated: February 10, 2017 09:43 AM GMT

Cardinal John Tong Hon of Hong Kong looks ahead to the dialogue between China and the Vatican in this commentary ahead of the first round of negotiations likely to be held in late February. His commentary, available in Chinese, English and Italian, was published Feb. 9 on Hong Kong diocesan websites. This is his second article on China-Vatican relations since the one in August.

Below is an abridged version of the commentary by ucanews.com. The full text can be seen here.


Over the past year, there have been frequent contacts between China and the Holy See. A working group has been set up to resolve problems. After several rounds of dialogue, a preliminary consensus has reportedly been reached, and that will lead to an agreement over the core problem relating to the appointment of bishops.

According to Catholic doctrine, the pope remains the last and highest authority in appointing a bishop. If he has the final word about the worthiness and suitability of an episcopal candidate, the elections of local churches and the recommendations of the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC) will simply be a way to express recommendations.

It is said that the Chinese government's concerns are mainly whether the candidates are patriotic and not whether they are loyal to the Catholic Church. Therefore, it would be appropriate to say that the agreement will not exceed the present effective practice.

Such an agreement will be a milestone in the normalization process of China-Vatican relations but by no means the end of it. Both parties will still need to continue the dialogue to resolve other problems accumulated for decades with patience and confidence.

Among these problems, the first is the issue of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA). The second is the seven self-nominated and self-ordained bishops who have violated canon law. The third is the issue of the more than 30 bishops from the unofficial church community who are not recognised by the Chinese government.


The future of Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association

Many people think that the problem of the CCPA is an unmovable mountain between China and the Vatican.

Also, there are church people who even think that Rome has renounced her doctrine of faith over this issue. Their reasoning is based on the principle of an "independent, autonomous and self-run church" of the CCPA, and the implementation of the principle — the "self-nomination and self-ordination" of bishops.

Pope Benedict XVI in his Letter to the Catholics in China stated that the CCPA is a government agency and such an entity is incompatible with Catholic doctrine.

It may be said that the CCPA concept of an "independent, autonomous and self-run church" and the "self-nomination and self-ordination" of bishops is a relationship between theory and practice.

They are products of a distinctive political environment and pressure. They do not go to the intrinsic qualities of the China church, nor to her inner pursuit. Even though some bishops have been ordained without papal permission, they still make every effort to ask for the pope's acceptance.

The Sino-Vatican dialogue implies that changes have already taken place in Beijing's policy on the Catholic Church. It will now let the pope play a role in the nomination and ordination of Chinese bishops.

Therefore, the Sino-Vatican agreement will enable the principle of "self-nomination and self-ordination" to be part of history. In the absence of it, the CCPA would turn into a patriotic association in its strict, literal sense: a patriotic and church-loving organisation composed of clergy and faithful across China.

In my opinion, the future of the CCPA may reorient itself "to encourage clergy and the faithful to carry out social charities, actively start social services, and work on things of social interest."


The question of the seven illicit bishops

Another obstacle is that of illicit bishops. The seven bishops (previously eight but one died in early 2017), in accordance with the church law, are under excommunication.

From the Vatican's perspective, the difficulties with accepting them are that their illicit ordination constitutes a serious breach of church law. Some are also accused of moral misconduct.

The two offences are different. The act of "self-nomination and self-ordination" is obvious to all and the offence is definite. However, the accusation of moral misconduct calls for more obvious evidence. It will take time to investigate.

It is rumored that the Vatican and Beijing have agreed to deal with the seven bishops' offensive deeds separately — firstly, the problem of illicit consecration and secondly, other possible offences.

As a precondition for pardoning an illicit bishop, he needs to show repentance. According to reliable information, these illicit bishops have sent letters to the pope to plead for forgiveness. Pardoning them is a highly probable outcome.

Nevertheless, pardoning the offences is not the equivalent of acknowledging their administrative right to govern a diocese.

Only those who are in conformity with faith, morality and canon law can be granted the administrative rights to a diocese. Thus, more time and patience will be needed from China and the Holy See before the problem of these illicit bishops can be finally resolved.


Underground bishops to be recognised by government

The most difficult problem in the dialogue is perhaps how to deal with the more than 30 underground bishops.

The legitimacy of the government-sanctioned Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China depends on the inclusion of all legitimately ordained bishops, not just some of them. Undoubtedly, the Holy See will make the request that all the bishops from the unofficial communities be recruited into it as well.

The underground church is the result of a special political and historical period. The underground bishops only choose to act differently from their counterparts in the open church according to their understanding of Catholic doctrine. As a matter of fact, the government attitude towards the unofficial communities has changed a lot in recent years. For most, only their identity and administrative rights are unrecognised.

The key to solving this problem is trust between these bishops themselves and the government. Beijing will perhaps ask them to declare explicitly their positions on the Constitution of China, its laws and policies. As long as the government does not require an "independent, autonomous, and self-run church" anymore, and the "self-nomination and self-ordination" of bishops, all these are not problems for them.


Waiting for entire freedom or holding firmly to the essential freedom

China and the Vatican have already reached a consensus on bishops' appointments. Based on this agreement, the problems of the future of the CCPA, the legitimacy of the illicit bishops in the official church community, the recognition of the underground bishops by Beijing and the establishment of the bishops' conference are going to be resolved.

Then, there will be no more the crisis of division between the open and underground communities. They will gradually move towards reconciliation and work together to preach the Gospel in China.

However, there is an unoptimistic aspect to the agreement. Such a viewpoint states that the issue of the China church is not an individual issue; it is closely related to the problems of other ethnic groups and religions; for instance, the problems of Tibet, Xinjiang and the autonomy of nationalities.

It would be inappropriate to mix the problems of Catholics with the problems involving Tibet and Xinjiang as they are not simply problems of religious freedom but more about problems of territory and sovereignty.

As a religious institution, the China church seeks to live out and witness her belief in China. The concern of the Holy See and the China church is whether there is room for freedom of religion to practice her belief.

The Catholic Church has her own particular administrative system, the hierarchy. Compared with other religions in China, it has a distinguishing feature, which is the bishops' appointment. When Beijing handles this unique problem of the Catholic Church, she will not implicate other religions in it.

"The freedom for the pope to appoint bishops" is part of the religious freedom of the Catholic Church, which has originated from her fundamental doctrines. The lack of the ways to spread the faith, to establish educational institutions and to own church property will not threaten or harm the nature of the China Church.

If Beijing is now ready to reach an agreement with the Holy See, the China church will enjoy an essential freedom, albeit in not complete freedom.

The choices in front of us are either to embrace the essential freedom now and become an imperfect, but true church, then struggle for complete freedom in the hope of moving towards a perfect church, or we give up essential freedom and have nothing at all, and then wait for complete freedom — but no one knows when this will ever happen.

In fact, the moral principle of the church teaches us to choose the lesser of two evils. Under the principle of healthy realism that Pope Francis teaches us, it is clear which path the China church ought to take.

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