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Does China really need more bishops?

It is not good for the Church to structure itself as a territorial administration only

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Does China really need more bishops?

Chinese Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Ascension at the underground Zhongxin Bridge Church in Tianjin in 2015. A secretive 2018 two-year agreement between Beijing and the Vatican was renewed on Oct. 22 despite warnings from underground Chinese priests loyal to Rome that they have only become more marginalized since it was signed. (Photo: Greg Baker/AFP)

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The recently renewed Sino-Vatican provisional agreement on appointing bishops has been questioned by many observers. Even though the Holy See has repeatedly reaffirmed the benefit of such a development, many commentators remain doubtful. For them, the agreement does not really bring any good to Chinese Catholics but gives more leverage to the administration to control the clergy.

In a context where political pressure and administrative interference on official and unofficial communities have increased significantly, many do not understand how the Holy See can present the agreement as positive.

The main critical argument refers to newly appointed bishops. Over the past two years, only a very few bishops came to office while many episcopal seats remain vacant. Thus, progress seems extremely limited while political pressure continues to increase. In the eyes of most observers, if the agreement is incapable of appointing new bishops, it only helps state officials to increase their anti-religious control. Thus, it brings more harm than good.

This rationale needs to be questioned. It is true that about 40 episcopal seats remain empty today. But which seats are we referring to? Due to historical reasons, the Holy See continues to apply the pre-1949 map of Chinese ecclesial structures. For Rome, the country remains organized into 143 jurisdictions (dioceses and apostolic prefectures). Yet many agree that this mapping of Chinese Catholicism is outdated and needs updates.

Over the past decades, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association has unilaterally abolished or merged more than 40 ecclesial jurisdictions and established a few ones. Thus, in the eyes of Beijing, China counts only 104 Catholic dioceses. This means that Beijing and Rome do not share the same mapping of the Chinese Catholicism. And between their two conflicting maps, the exact number of needed bishops is unclear. 

Still, a significant number of episcopal seats remain empty. Why? Is that beneficial or detrimental to the Church? I would like to take the example of one eastern province of the country to see how things work on the ground. Of course, this cannot summarize the complexity of the whole country. But it sheds light on factors we need to consider.

The province in question hosts four state-approved dioceses. Three are small in size but with a robust number of Catholics. The last one covers a vast and mountainous territory — almost half of the entire province — with small and scattered Christian communities. This extended diocese is the fusion of two apostolic prefectures plus a few parishes — a decision that has not yet been approved by Rome. During the Maoist Era and after, since they were no local priests, local Catholics were supported by clergy members visiting from nearby dioceses. Until today, this diocese has never had a bishop.

Before the agreement, one small diocese of this province had one official bishop and its ecclesial situation was relatively harmonious. Another diocese, however, was sharply divided between a vast majority of underground Catholics and a minority of official ones. While both camps had their own bishop, the state-approved bishop was excommunicated by Rome due to his illicit ordination. Thus, the 2018 provisional agreement reintegrated him into the communion of the Church. And to do so, the underground bishop was asked to become his auxiliary.

Yet tensions between priests remained extremely high. And just before the renewal of the Sino-Vatican agreement last month, the former underground bishop — a humble man with modest education dealing with a restless clergy and a devious Religious Affairs Bureau — finally resigned from his auxiliary office.

Then, if we move to the last diocese of the province, the situation is not really better. Before the agreement, the small state-sanctioned community had no bishop. For several years, more numerous underground Catholics were divided into two clans fighting each other. After internal reconciliation of the underground communities, and before the renewal of the Sino-Vatican agreement, the elderly underground bishop was finally recognized by the government as the official bishop of the diocese. No one can tell how this will reshape the diocese, nor how long the elderly bishop will survive. Still, things are on the move.

In sum, the province has currently three bishops — two with a fragile status despite a resourceful diocese — and one (or two) empty episcopal seat(s) depending on the map we apply.

Time needed for reconciliation

Where recent episcopal changes occurred, local communities and their regional networks need time to truly reconcile and find a way to work together. This cannot be imposed by Rome or Beijing. Yet this will impact new nominations across the province.

For example, one priest coming from the hometown of the former excommunicated bishop has been serving the vast and mountainous diocese for more than 20 years. Since his quality and modesty are indisputable, he has acted as diocesan administrator for years and would be the most suitable bishop. However, if the Holy See and Beijing appoint him, this will appear as more credit given to the circle of the formerly excommunicated bishop. In the current context, no one can predict how local underground Catholics will respond, and if they do not receive him, a formal appointment will bring more divisions than reconciliations.  

Furthermore, many consider that in the vast territory of this rural diocese it might be better not having an identified head. Under the current decline of religious freedom, loose networks of Catholic communities are harder to grasp by civil authorities. Local Catholics like to repeat the saying: “The first bird to bob up will get shot.” Whoever will get appointed as bishop will become the target of political pressure. So, for a diocese with very limited resources, it might be better to keep a low profile — with no single head.

With these different ecclesial territories, each unfolding its own dynamics and influencing its neighbors, this province shows the complexity of the Church’s situation as well as the limited control of Beijing and the Holy See. Clearly, appointing more bishops is not a magical solution to all difficulties of the Church. This is clericalism. When a local context is sore, the Holy See knows how to wait before making a formal decision (see the recent appointment in Jerusalem). This is not weakness but cautiousness.

This being clarified, we may still ask what the Sino-Vatican agreement brings. Clearly, it does not multiply the number of bishops. However, we need to remember that over the past 40 years, Beijing and Rome have each demonstrated abilities to ordain more bishops. Both know how to be efficient and tough on that front.

Through coercion and kidnapping, the Chinese Communist Party has several times organized forced episcopal ordinations. On the other side, through special privileges and secret communications, the Holy See has let Chinese bishops ordain new bishops without papal nomination. So, if the Vatican or Beijing wants more bishops, they know how to get them. Yet those solutions have proven to generate all sorts of complications and disasters, not only detrimental to Chinese Catholics but to both authorities as well. In light of this tortuous path, the agreement appears as a bilateral effort to find an alternative solution.

The renewed Sino-Vatican agreement is about strengthening common ground acceptable for both authorities as well as for the different factions of Chinese Catholicism. Surely this is a slow process if we look solely from the perspective of newly appointed bishops. But the fact that all bishops are now in communion with Rome is a first step toward healing.

When Chinese Catholics and their clergy split into antagonist groups attacking each other, parts of the body of Christ suffer from other parts. This autoimmune disease is, of course, partially fueled by external pathogens that triggered the immune system of the Church. But since Chinese Catholics cannot be put into a sterilized bubble, the Holy See needs other options. Reintegrating excommunicated bishops, suspending institutionalized divisions, and regaining a certain control over episcopal nominations are ways to encourage the Church in China. It helps to regenerate some levels of communion within the Church. Yet the whole body needs to do his job. Fraternal communion cannot be imposed by Rome.

Therefore, I believe that evaluating the Sino-Vatican agreement only through newly appointed bishops is shortsighted. This is a very political, top-down and administrative approach. Having more bishops is not a solution to all problems. Moreover, turning the spotlight on bishops without considering the diversity of the Church is problematic. A tree cannot hide the forest. Which kind of ecclesiology are we promoting?

Among the many challenges that the Church in China is facing, there is one that we need to spell out. Unlike the rest of the world where local communities can be served by both, secular and regular clergy, the Chinese Church is supposedly unidimensional. Due to political constraints, the Church is only made of dioceses. Transregional as well as transnational religious orders are forbidden. Unlike in Paris, Nairobi or Buenos Aires where a single street can host a Dominican convent, a Franciscan chapel and a diocesan parish, Chinese streets cannot. Only parishes administrated by their diocese are allowed.

This undue political restriction may seem acceptable to some church leaders who look down upon the contribution of religious life. I have heard a well-educated Chinese priest telling me that the Church does not need monks since “we all know how to pray”. Others may use Vatican II to claim that bishops and their dioceses are the fundamental backbone of the Church. But this unidimensional ecclesiology fails to embrace the variety of Catholic needs and sensibilities.

Unlike elsewhere in the world where the Church is irrigated by two kinds of ecclesial institutions, local dioceses and transregional religious orders, the Church in China is forced to hop on one foot. Of course, underground networks of national religious orders exist. But their impact is limited. Thus, the necessary diversity of the Church tends to be institutionalized through an unhealthy opposition between “patriotic” and “underground” communities while traditional resources are left behind.

It is this challenge that we need to face. The lack of religious orders, especially male religious orders, is concerning in many countries. It is not good for the Church to structure itself as a territorial administration only. But in China the problem is worse and observers turn blind eyes. While the number of bishops is important, we should worry about the absence of transregional religious orders.  Without them, the Body of Christ cannot deploy its diversity and deepen its spiritual roots. Without birds on its trees, a forest cannot really sing the glory of God. And it is this absence — unnoticed by most social scientists and journalists — that Catholics need to question.

Michel Chambon is a French Catholic theologian and anthropologist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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