UCA News


Michel Chambon

Bishop ordinations in China and the resurrection of the Sino-Vatican agreement

Rock Ronald Rozario
By Rock Ronald Rozario

01 February 2024

Michel Chambon, a theologian and cultural anthropologist who has conducted years of research in China, says the flurry of bishop ordinations this week in China shows that the Sino-Vatican agreement is working, despite it being dormant for some time.

The developments in China also indicate a thaw in Vatican-China relations despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s reluctance in the past to engage with Pope Francis, says Chambon, who coordinates the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics at the University of Singapore.

In the following interview, Chambon also expresses his views about the so-called underground Church in China and the Vatican’s prospects of developing diplomatic relations with China.

Three Catholic bishops were ordained this week in China, and approved by both the Vatican and the government. This is unprecedented. What does this mean for the Church in China?

We have never seen this before. It's a landslide of bishop ordinations. It is excellent news to have a few new Catholic bishops in China based on consensus.

Recent Interviews

We don’t know if we are going to see more bishop ordinations in the coming weeks. But what we witnessed indicates a thaw in China-Vatican relations — despite one uncertainty on the ordination in Minbei.

The Holy See always wanted to appoint bishops in Chinese dioceses that are still without bishops. But Chinese authorities have been moving very slowly. Several times, the good faith of the communist regime was unclear. This raises a question — why has the CCP suddenly decided to move on fairly quickly?

One hypothesis raised by observers is that the CCP leadership was waiting for the party congress to be over last November to make any decision on this.

Another hypothesis is that Pope Francis has been quite insistent and bold in his approach to China. His Mongolia visit last September was an interesting enactment of this. Also, the recent developments in Vatican-Vietnam relations highlight how the Holy See remains keen on engaging with communist-led countries.

Overall, Pope Francis has been very creative in finding ways to remind China that the Holy See wants a constructive dialogue, despite China and Xi Jinping showing a lack of interest.

Initially, the 2018 China-Vatican Agreement did not deliver much. The Covid-19 pandemic was an acceptable excuse for its slow implementation. However, after 2021, China’s lack of interest in engaging with the Vatican became evident. The Vatican had to reveal a few times that there were no talks at all.

With three ordinations in a few days, the CCP has changed its mind. Although we are yet to know the reasons for this change.

Father Peter Wu Yishun was installed bishop of Minbei on Jan. 31. What is the significance of his ordination for Catholics in the diocese?

Father Wu is a wonderful man and a wise pastor. I have known him for years and I am familiar with the prefecture of Minbei as I have conducted fieldwork there since 2013.

In the eyes of Chinese authorities, the Minbei diocese covers the administrative prefecture of Minbei. It was created by merging parts of three ecclesial territories in the northern part of Fujian province, a mountainous region that is undergoing rapid development.

Father Wu has been a priest for over 25 years. He is a very low-key, humble yet active and caring pastor. He is also friendly and has a good sense of humor. He has good pastoral experience at home and traveled abroad several times. I have seen all kinds of priests in China — some being ambitious, depressed, alcoholic, or spending too much time with Chinese officials. He is none of this.

But the region is a tricky place for Catholics. It is the birthplace of the Chinese rite country. The nearby Mindong diocese, where Father Wu comes from, had an excommunicated bishop for years. Catholics in Minbei have long been divided between underground and official communities. Over the years, Father Wu has been able to gain the trust of underground Catholics. It was not an easy task.

It was clear for years that he should become the bishop of Minbei and it has come true now. His selection is good news. It will have positive impacts on the life of the Church on the ground.

Yet, it is not clear why the Holy See appointed him as bishop of Shaowu, an Apostolic prefecture of the region that the Chinese authorities do not recognize anymore. In the Chinese statement, Bishop Wu is the bishop of Minbei — a territory much larger than Shaowu alone. Despite what Vatican News has claimed, Father Wu was ordained in Jianyang — the new capital of Minbei prefecture, showing the desire of the government to establish him as head of Minbei diocese. Furthermore, the Vatican did not create the diocese of Minbei, as it did the day before with the new bishop of Weifeng. In Fujian, it seems that some Sino-Vatican disagreements remain unsolved. 

This development offers hope but also challenges. The CCP remains extremely anxious about social control. Catholics won’t be an exception. We will have to see how things evolve in the long term. For now, this is real progress, and we can only hope and pray that things will continue to improve.

The China-Vatican provisional agreement, renewed in 2020 and 2022, is due for renewal again in October. Despite the strong criticism against it, the agreement seems to be working. What do you think?

Since the agreement was signed in 2018, nine bishops were ordained with mutual consent, three of them this week. The Vatican also recognized at least six “illegitimate” bishops previously appointed by the state without a papal mandate. And slowly, the map of Chinese dioceses is clarified.

The agreement is making things move forward. Despite many remaining questions, it is progress. And every two years, it has to be evaluated and formally renewed.

But we know the agreement in itself is not enough. Many other parameters can interfere.  For almost two years, the agreement did not deliver significant progress.

As Cardinal Parolin (Vatican’s Secretary of State) said, it is not an ideal agreement. In the current Chinese context, it's the least bad agreement we can have.

In September 2024, the Holy See will have to decide again what to do with this agreement. So, it was essential to have some kind of concrete output in the upcoming months. In a context where numerous anti-China voices criticize Pope Francis openly for his China approach, it would have been very difficult for the Holy See to renew or develop the agreement further if nothing improved.

Although relations are improving, the Vatican is also silent about the Chinese government’s rights violations and religious persecution, including of Christians and underground Catholics. Is the Vatican making too many concessions to improve relations with China?

In general, the Vatican is cautious before pointing fingers at a specific nation, big or small. We know that in the competition between the US and China, any word against China can be interpreted in all kinds of directions. So, I do understand the extreme caution the Vatican takes.

However, I understand the depth of your question. China is trying its best to take as much advantage as possible of every situation before it. In some sense, this is fair game. 

Yet in 2018, (with the agreement with the Vatican) China for the first time acknowledged publicly that a foreign power, the pope, has a word to say about a religious matter in China. That never happened before.

Despite this complicated context and tense political atmosphere, the Holy See has been able to negotiate with China and earn some kind of trust and relaxation from the CCP. This is positive.

Everything is not solved and numerous questions remain. But it’s still progress.  This is unprecedented that China is willing to listen to local bishops in China and the Vatican before making any episcopal appointments.

Pointing fingers and going for some sort of a holy war against a specific regime have rarely produced the best results. In Vietnam, Japan, or Korea, we had hundreds, thousands of martyrs. Do we want that in China?

Unfortunately, we know how China treats some religious minorities, perceiving some ethnic groups as a danger to the state and national cohesion. Do we want to tell Chinese Catholics to go for a full fight with the CCP? I think this would be very unwise, un-evangelical, and unproductive.

If Europeans, Americans and Japanese are so concerned about religious freedom in China, they should be the ones removing their ambassadors from Beijing and transferring them to Taipei. Today, the ambassador of the pope is in Taipei, not in Beijing. The Vatican is deploying its own diplomacy, giving great attention to all parties and refusing any anti-China agenda. The West should not lecture the Holy See on China. 

For decades China had two parallel Catholic Churches — a state-run patriotic church and a Vatican-aligned underground church. Since the Sino-Vatican agreement, China has been accused of attempting to dismantle the underground church. What is the future of this underground church now?

This entire framework of analysis needs to be questioned. As Catholic Christians, we care about the Church and the broader society. From that point of view, we need to question any political reduction of Christian communities in China. We should rather apply an ecclesiological approach and look at the diversity of Chinese churchgoers.

The difficulties of the Church in China, of course, are linked to politics. But many difficulties are also related to internal tensions between different spiritualities, generations, competing networks, local traditions, etc. Chinese Catholics are not homogenous, and Chinese authorities have a hard time acknowledging and institutionalizing this. 

For centuries, the Catholic Church has distinguished between secular and regular priests, between local dioceses and transregional religious orders. The Church has institutionalized diversity. In China, the state only recognizes local dioceses and forbids the legal existence of religious orders like the Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits… Consequently, Chinese Catholics do not have the legal framework through which they can express and mediate their internal diversity. This creates endless tensions.

From the outside, many assume that official and underground communities are necessarily divided along political lines. But this is often not the case. Many other factors are as important. This over-political reading of the Church in China is detrimental to everyone: Chinese Catholics, the Universal Church, and Chinese authorities.

We need to mobilize grounded ecclesiology in our reading of the Church in China. Most of the problem is not about political views on communism per se. It is about the ways we recognize and integrate ecclesial diversity.  To overcome tensions between underground and official communities, both the CCP and the Vatican need to make more progress on how they acknowledge the necessary diversity of Chinese Catholics.

The Vatican has now a resident nuncio in communist-ruled Vietnam and there is a flurry of bishop ordinations in China. What does it mean for a perceived long-term goal of the Vatican to establish diplomatic ties with China?

The Vatican has been in dialogue with communist actors, either individuals, parties, or states, for decades. So, this is not new. Rejecting a Cold War mentality, the Holy See has been very pragmatic in recognizing common interests regarding social issues, development, and so on.

Frankly, it is a naïve idea to consider communism as the ultimate evil and the enemy of the Vatican. History shows that the Vatican has long engaged with communist regimes.

When it comes to Vietnam, in the late 1990s, French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray took the initiative to reconnect with Vietnamese authorities. Gradually, Vietnam understood why the Holy See needed access to Vietnamese Catholic communities and agreed to facilitate it.

First, a papal representative was allowed to regularly visit Vietnam. Things improved further, and now; he can live in Vietnam. It is very important for the delegate of the pope to freely circulate, talk to a variety of people, and better understand local dynamics. This is essential to appoint bishops who have the required skills to be good pastors. 

Many questions about Church property, the interpretation of past events, financial compensations, and the possibility of developing a Catholic education in Vietnam remain under discussion. But both parties are making significant efforts. It takes time to gain trust and mutual understanding.

Also, Vietnam is a dynamic nation, taking part in all kinds of international dialogue and exchanges. The Vatican and Vietnam share several similar concerns and interests on a global scale, and developing full diplomatic relations is important for both parties. 

In their dialogue with China, Vatican officials have several times mentioned the example of Vietnam. For the Holy See, small and pragmatic steps can help to make progress.

And in many ways, this is already happening in China. In the late 1990s, Beijing allowed an unofficial papal representative to live in Hong Kong. It was first very discreet and modest. Twenty-five years later, his status is significantly better. The Vatican has recently suggested moving him to Beijing but China is not yet ready for this big step.

Similarly, Pope Francis was able to re-frame the way the Holy See negotiates with China to the point that in 2018, a provisional Sino-Vatican Agreement was established. I will not repeat what I said earlier about the ups and downs of this agreement. There are many other steps to consider — but this agreement is a step toward deeper and more faithful dialogue with China.

Again, Pope Francis has demonstrated his keen interest in China. This was evident during his trip to Mongolia last year, and Kazakhstan the year before. He is also keen on visiting Vietnam soon. The message is clear: he will continue to turn around China. With this public display of love, Chinese leaders may have understood that they needed to re-evaluate their approach to the Vatican.

The international context is very complex and volatile. The Vatican has demonstrated its capacity to remain independent from an American agenda. There is plenty of room for Sino-Vatican collaboration. But the upcoming months will tell us how interested China is.

Help UCA News to be independent
Dear reader,
Trafficking is one of the largest criminal industries in the world, only outdone by drugs and arms trafficking, and is the fastest-growing crime today.
Victims come from every continent and are trafficked within and to every continent. Asia is notorious as a hotbed of trafficking.
In this series, UCA News introduces our readers to this problem, its victims, and the efforts of those who shine the light of the Gospel on what the Vatican calls “these varied and brutal denials of human dignity.”
Help us with your donations to bring such stories of faith that make a difference in the Church and society.
A small contribution of US$5 will support us continue our mission…
William J. Grimm
UCA News

Share your comments

Latest News

UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia