Speakers at two Hong Kong symposiums on historic Vatican-China negotiations have complained that some so-called underground Catholic bishops are being pushed aside. Catholicism in China has long had both open and underground components. While the open church associates with the government-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), the underground church has refused to do so. Much haggling aimed at securing a formal Sino-Vatican agreement centers on the sensitive issue of bishops currently being appointed by the CPCA. Sometimes this has been done with the Holy See's backing but on other occasions it has been in direct contravention of its wishes. Proposed mutual concessions would see the Chinese government given greater control over the underground church while the Vatican would purportedly have a final say on the appointment of bishops. The recent symposiums were held in Hong Kong while China's National People's Congress (NPC) was being held in Beijing. The most publicized aspect of the NPC deliberations was allowing Chinese President Xi Jinping
to rule beyond a 2023 term limit. Xi has made no secret of the fact that he wants stricter controls over religious affairs so that security issues don't interfere with China cementing its superpower status. The Vatican has its own diplomatic and practical interests to weigh and pursue. But several seminar scholars and experts pointed out that it was unfair, as part of efforts to reach a Vatican-China deal, for underground bishops to have to make way for so-called illicit and excommunicated bishops. Some analysts note that an upside would be no future illicit consecration of bishops. Anthony Lam Sui-ki, a senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, spoke at a symposium at the Talentum Bookshop in the former British colony. He welcomed the fact there had been no illicit consecration of bishops since Xi became president in 2013. China's aim was to have confidence that those picked as bishops would not challenge government authority, Lam said. He referred to media reports that Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian
of Shantou was asked to step aside to make way for Bishop Huang Bingzhang.
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Bishop Huang, who was excommunicated in 2011 following his consecration without Vatican endorsement, is a member of the NPC. Lam said Bishop Zhuang may have misinterpreted what he heard when the Vatican sought his opinion on a successor. And there have been suggestions that Bishop Zhuang is not free to talk openly and explain his situation However, other sources maintain that Bishop Zhuang confirmed he was asked by Vatican officials to make way for Bishop Huang. The Justice and Peace Commission of Hong Kong organized another symposium on Sino-Vatican relations with more than 300 participants at St. Vincent's Chapel. Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun told the gathering that while Bishop Zhuang retiring was not an issue, he also thought it was not right for him to have to hand over to an excommunicated bishop. One reputed complication for the Vatican accepting previously illicitly consecrated pro-government open church bishops is that some of them have reputedly had romantic relationships, even offspring. Meanwhile, according to Reuters, in February some church sources said that while the proposed Sino-Vatican agreement was not ideal, there were hopes of greater future latitude. Cardinal Zen, however, suggested there would be less freedom as more than 30 underground bishops were forced into a "bird cage" with those of the government-aligned open church. Another speaker at the seminar, Franciscan Father Chan Moon-hung, believed underground Chinese bishops would strive to perform well in pastoral work before obtaining papal approval. He suggested this was akin to avoiding any scandals while on probation. The advantage was that the pope would have the right to make a final decision, he said. But he noted that when an agreement was reached, priests in China would have a clear path to promotion and this could have a negative impact on their pastoral responsibilities. Those seeking to obtain high positions could neglect pastoral endeavors while befriending government officials and joining the CPCA, Father Chan said. The aim of aspirants in such cases would be to have their names put on a list of candidates to become bishops sent to the Holy See for endorsement. Father Chan rejected the proposition that a schism would exist between the open and underground churches if a Vatican-China agreement was not reached. He said this was because the Holy See had always recognized the existence of two Catholic communities in China. Professor Ying Fuk-tsang, director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said a Sino-Vatican agreement would not alter the Communist Party's insistence on having overriding control of religious affairs
. Under Xi, religious organizations not recognized by the government would be targeted for incorporation in the so-called patriotic camp, he said. Stated objectives included cracking down on "black cults" as well as ensuring the Catholic underground church and protestant 'house churches' were more tightly controlled. Some symposium participants were concerned about implications for Hong Kong in relation to religious freedoms as well as political controls. Father Chan said he believed that the state secretary of the Holy See would consult with the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council of China over the appointment of the next bishop of Hong Kong.