Government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic organizations held their Ninth National Congress for Catholic Representatives in December 2016. What is worrying is that this congress claims to be the supervisor of China’s bishops’ conference, while the bishops’ conference itself claims authority over individual diocesan bishops. These two practices are not compatible with the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church. The congress concluded with a Benediction instead of the Eucharist to avoid the embarrassing situation of legitimate and illegitimate bishops concelebrating together. This should be counted as a positive measure nowadays. Such a measure, however, is more about China’s willingness to avoid obstacles to ongoing Sino-Vatican negotiations, than a clear sign of improvement in relations. When talking about Sino-Vatican negotiations, much of the Chinese media and many scholars draw parallels with the situation in Vietnam. But different interpretations of the so-called "Vietnam Model" make the situation rather complicated.
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One example of such an interpretation came from Professor Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs and director of the Center for EU Studies at Renmin University, who told the media in December, "Beijing and the Vatican are very likely to adopt the 2010 agreement between Vietnam and the Vatican, which means that the Vatican will superficially appoint the bishops, but that Beijing will assign the bishop candidates in advance." Such an explanation is totally unacceptable to us. Even if we put aside the future possibility of an agreement between China and the Vatican, such an understanding of the deal between Vietnam and the Vatican is far from the reality. Quite a number of bishops have been appointed to the three archdioceses and 23 dioceses in Vietnam. If we ask how many of them were assigned by the government, the answer we know is "none of them." The majority of the newly appointed bishops in Vietnam have graduated from seminaries overseas. Most of them were in Rome or France, with quite a number also from the United States. Among my friends are some Vietnamese priests. They clearly point out that all the bishops appointed in Vietnam were legally consulted and investigated according to Canon Law, before being appointed by the Holy See. If one says that they were selected by the government, it is a great insult and absolutely unacceptable to the Catholics of the concerned dioceses. As far as we know, the Holy See informs the Vietnamese government a few days in advance when there is an episcopal appointment. That is all. In reality, for the last seven years, the Vietnam government has always given their endorsement and respects the appointments. Besides, when Pope Francis made Archbishop Nguyen Van Nhon a cardinal on Jan. 4, 2015, the Vietnam government also extended its congratulations. Moreover on Jan 25, 2007, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam made an official visit to the Vatican to see Pope Benedict XVI. He was the first high-ranking Vietnamese leader to meet the pope since Vietnam broke diplomatic relations with the Holy See on April 30, 1975, after the Communists won the war. Afterwards, the Catholic Church started the canonization process for the late Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (1928-2002). We should note that Cardinal Nguyen had suffered 13 years of imprisonment under the Vietnam Communist regime. Regarding the issue of canonization, the Vietnam government took a low profile, open and tolerant approach. This is what the Chinese scholars did not pay attention to. The Vietnam Church is an important pillar of the Catholic Church in Asia. With more than 2,000 seminarians and novices, it is one of the three great sources of Catholic priestly vocations in Asia. The other two are South Korea and India. Compared to them, we, the Catholic Church in greater China, are left far behind. We should learn more from our brothers and sisters in Vietnam. So, I beg the pardon of the "scholars" by asking them not to make any more groundless speculation regarding the Catholic Church in Vietnam. Anthony Lam is a senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre of Hong Kong Diocese