ucanews.com reporter, Hong KongPublished: February 16, 2017 10:04 AM GMT
Chinese police conducted security checks outside St. Joseph's Church in Wangfujing, Beijing, on Dec. 24. Officials from the Chinese government and the Vatican have been conducting secret talks on the appointment of bishops in the communist-ruled country over the past year. (ucanews.com photo)
The Bishop of Hong Kong's optimistic view of what secret China-Vatican talks may mean for China's Catholics has met with a mixed response.
Cardinal John Tong's commentary — available in Chinese, English and Italian on the Hong Kong diocesan website on Feb. 9 — summarized several rounds of negotiations between officials from the Vatican and the Chinese government conducted over the past year.
In his 3,000 plus word article, the cardinal revealed that there was now a preliminary consensus that would lead to an agreement over the contentious issue of bishop appointments in mainland China between Beijing and the Vatican.
Cardinal Tong also pointed out three other issues that need to be resolved with patience and time. As part of that, the cardinal expressed what the future might hold for the state-aligned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), a body distrusted by most Catholics in the country.
The cardinal suggested that a future CCPA might reorient itself "to encourage clergy and the faithful to carry out social charities, actively start social services, and work on things of social interest."
In relation to the 30 bishops of the underground church community who are not recognized by the government, Cardinal Tong wrote: "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."
He also wrote about seven government-backed bishops who were ordained without Vatican approval.
However, many Catholics and church observers did not appreciate the optimism in Cardinal Tong's commentary.
An open church priest commentator in China with the penname "Father Shanren" said he believed the cardinal's article was published to test the waters.
Father Shanren wrote on his blog that the cardinal did not dare hastily jump to the point of abolishing the CCPA but only suggested "changing its function" as a Catholic charity organization because he was not sure if the Chinese government would agree to this.
The cardinal's article "seemed to prepare the ground for making the agreement public," wrote the priest.
"[It is] to comfort the underground community so that they would not object fiercely," he added.
Joseph Zhang, an active underground Catholic in northwestern China, thinks Cardinal Tong's overall view is right.
"It is good to have dialogue rather than confrontation but he is simply too optimistic," said Zhang.
"But if members in the underground church community think the Sino-Vatican negotiations may cause harm to their faith, they will not accept it. It would only split the church further and they will become more marginalized," he told ucanews.com.
A researcher in China pointed out that in the country's Constitution, Article 36 states that religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.
"The agreement issue may turn out more complicated as it needs not only religious experts to deal with it but also intervention of legal experts to interpret the Constitution on the meaning of domination when Cardinal Tong stressed twice that the pope remains the last and highest authority in appointing a bishop," the researcher said.
Zhang, the underground Catholic, said he would not be surprised if an agreement were to be achieved this year. But he said it would come with a moral cost.
"From the recent invitation of Chinese health officials to a Vatican summit on organ trafficking, we could see that both sides have their different political and faith values but each side is taking what they want from the other," Zhang said.
"The price to pay is for the Vatican to abandon its value on justice and human rights," he added.
Wang Meixiu, a leading Catholic researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, told ucanews.com that if an agreement on bishop's appointments were made it would give hope that other problems could gradually be resolved between the state and the church.
"If there is an agreement, that means there is space for China and the Vatican to cooperate," said Wang.
However, Wang thinks China-Vatican interaction still needs further observation given the Party Congress will be convened sometime in 2017. She added that it is also the CCPA's 60th anniversary and the 10th anniversary of Pope Benedict's letter to Chinese Catholics.
Cardinal Tong's article was published as China and the Vatican prepares to meet for the first time in 2017. He wrote an earlier article in August about China-Vatican relations, which he then described as a win-win situation.