Bishop Li Shan performs ceremonies during a Mass on Holy Saturday at Beijing's government-sanctioned South Cathedral on March 31. China and the Vatican signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops on Sept. 22. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)
On the face of it, one of the more curious issues about the recent "temporary" deal between the Vatican and Beijing on the appointment of bishops, as described in the official state-run Chinese media, was the lack of any resolution of the status of bishops appointed by the Vatican but not recognized by Communist Party-run Catholic groups.
It would seem to have been a logical quid pro quo — something granted or expected in return for something given — for the Vatican's forgiveness and recognition of seven bishops (including one recently deceased bishop) appointed by the Chinese Communist Party's twinset of Catholic apparatus. These are the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Bishops' Conference of the Chinese Catholic Church (BCCCC). This meant their de facto excommunications were also revoked.
As well, there has been no announcement, also expected by some to be part of the deal, regarding the status — or, preferably, the release — of priests and bishops in prison, detention or, as in the case of Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai, under house arrest at Shanghai's Sheshan Seminary since 2012.
One of these bishops, plus another who had originally been appointed by Beijing and later recognized by Beijing under a system where Beijing appointees would then seek forgiveness and recognition from the Vatican, were the first Chinese priests to ever attend a synod at Pope Francis' recent Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment in October.
The numbers of underground bishops are difficult to pin down as there is no official list of these men, and the Vatican has not released one. They are said to number about 30 in numerous reports, including one by Father Jeroom Hendrickx of the Ferdinand Verbiest Foundation at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, a long-time expert on the Chinese Church.
In a summary of the underground church by Hong Kong's Holy Spirit Research Center, head researcher Antony Lam counted 19 active and 17 inactive underground bishops in China.
But the Catholic Hierarchy website notes the death of nine bishops during 2017. This would reduce the number of bishops to just 27.
Many of these bishops are getting old. It was difficult for the Vatican to appoint bishops between 1960 and 1980, so many were ordained at the age of 75 or older.
For some years an informal agreement has been in operation between Beijing and the Vatican, one that has now been more formally recognized in the temporary deal on the appointment of bishops.
This means that many of the 27 or so bishops are beyond the official retirement age of 75. That being said, the official age is simply a guide. Bishops must submit their resignation at that that time, but the pope will often ask prelates to continue on in their jobs for a few years.
In China's case, this can be for a decade or longer due to the lack of available candidates.
A case in point would be the controversy in December 2017 over the Vatican's move to remove 88-year-old Bishop Zhuang Jianjian from the southern Chinese city of Shantou. He was secretly ordained in 2006 with the Vatican's approval.
The bishop was shifted aside to make way for a Beijing-approved prelate, the formerly excommunicated Father Huang Bingzhang. This can now be seen as a stepping stone on the way to the September agreement.
Bishop Zhuang complained about his treatment in a letter carried to the pontiff by retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, 85. But the entreaties of the most senior cleric to criticize the deal with Beijing fell on deaf ears.
Ultimately, the service of any bishop over 75 is the pope's call alone. While such public moves may not be made to avoid bad publicity, it would be unlikely that talks are not processed between the Vatican and individual underground bishops to negotiate graceful retirements.
Efforts to try and regularize appointments with Beijing have been underway, in fits and starts, for the past 30 years.
From Beijing's point of view, the party-state probably does not care too much, particularly given the age of most of the bishops. If the Vatican continues to not appoint any underground bishops, they will eventually melt away.
Another view is that the status of the underground bishops in China is tied up with concurrent talks about cleaning up the widening disparity between the official Vatican count of dioceses in China of 137 and the number now recognized by Chinese authorities of 97.
Many dioceses are now without their own bishops. A large hint that change may be ahead was dropped at the time of the announcement of the deal with the concurrent revelations that a new diocese had been formed to accommodate one of the newly forgiven bishops.
And in fact, a point that often gets lost in discussions about the underground versus the state-run churches is that there is a large grey area concerning priests, bishops and believers who have a foot in both camps.
As for the harassment of clergy, if the detention of two priests from Hebei in October is any indication, Beijing will continue with its crackdown on religion regardless.
After all, the deal between Beijing and the Vatican only related to the appointments of bishops, and the Vatican made it clear that it was, from its point of view, only pastoral, which means that any priests and parishioners must obey Chinese laws.
These included a raft of new religious rules and regulations introduced in February aimed at Sinicizing religion, which really means making it more loyal to the ruling Communist Party.