The Complicated Case of China’s Catholic Bishops

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Photo:  Flags of the People’s Republic of China and Vatican City. Credit: FreshStock, Shutterstock

CNA/EWTN News, Jan 23, 2018 

– The Vatican’s efforts to resolve the split between underground Chinese bishops and the government-recognized Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association face another challenge, as an aging bishop faithful to Rome has reportedly declined a Vatican request to retire, to be replaced by a bishop favored by the Chinese government.

The Church in China is split between an underground Catholic Church and the officially recognized Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Every bishop recognized by Beijing must be a member of the association.

The Holy See’s negotiations with the Chinese government could eventually lead to Vatican recognition of seven illicitly ordained bishops aligned with Beijing. The Holy See could be pursuing China’s official recognition of 20 bishop candidates appointed by the Holy See, some of whom have already been secretly ordained, in addition to state recognition of up to 40 bishops in the underground Catholic community.

Many underground bishops, priests and lay faithful have faced persecution and harassment.

In December 2017, the Holy See asked 88-year-old Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou in southern Guangdong province to retire so that an illicitly ordained excommunicated bishop could take his place and be recognized by the Vatican, Asia News reports.

However, the Vatican-recognized bishop reportedly refused the delegation’s request that he retire.

The Holy See had previously asked Bishop Zhuang to resign in an Oct. 26, 2017 letter. A church source in Guangdong, who asked not to be named, told Asia News that at the time of the letter Bishop Zhuang “refused to obey and rather ‘carry His Cross’ for being disobedient.”

The bishop was secretly ordained in 2006 with Vatican approval.The Chinese government does not recognize the ordination, and considers the bishop to be a priest. The government supports Bishop Huang Bingzhang, a member of China’s parliament, called the National People’s Congress, for Zhuang’s position. This bishop was excommunicated in 2011 when he accepted episcopal ordination without the Vatican’s permission.

In December the elderly Bishop Zhuang was reportedly escorted to Beijing, despite poor health and cold weather, where he met separately with leaders of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, officials from China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs, and the Vatican delegation.

If Bishop Zhuang resigned, the Holy See delegation reportedly said, he could nominate three priests, one of whom Bishop Huang would choose as his vicar general.

“Bishop Zhuang could not help his tears on hearing the demand,” Asia News’ source said, explaining “it was meaningless to appoint a vicar general, who is still a priest that Bishop Huang could remove him anytime.”

The controversy is part of a delicate diplomatic effort to advance Vatican-Chinese relations while also considering the circumstances of underground Catholics. Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli is responsible for the negotiations and was identified by Asia News as head of the Vatican delegation.

Even bishops in the patriotic association can be faithful to the Holy See, and they sometimes bristle against the association. Shanghai’s Auxiliary Bishop Taddeus Ma Daqin was jointly approved for ordination by the Holy See and the Chinese government, but announced his resignation from the patriotic association at his July 2012 ordination Mass. He was immediately placed under house arrest. Though he later appeared to back away from his stance against the association, he still faced isolation.

Initially eight bishops illicitly ordained as part of the patriotic association were awaiting recognition from the Holy See, but one of them passed away last year.

For its part, the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping is pursuing an effort to “Sinicize” religion. In his role as general secretary of the Communist Party, last October, Jinping called for “new approaches” to religious and ethnic affairs.

“The gist is to demand all religions to uphold an independent principle and follow the leadership of the Community Party,” Asia News said.

Other arrangements to reunify the country’s licit and illicit bishops are underway in the Diocese of Mindong in China’s eastern Fujian province. Its ordinary, Bishop Joseph Guo Xijin, is an underground Catholic who was detained for a month before Holy Week in 2017.

Citing local sources, Asia News said the Vatican delegation has asked the bishop to voluntarily accept a position as coadjutor bishop under Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, one of the seven illicitly ordained bishops favored by the government. This was also among the conditions Chinese officials had proposed to Bishop Guo during his detention.

According to canon law, coadjutor bishops have the right to succeed the bishop in their diocese, meaning that, in principle, Zhan could eventually resume the leadership of a diocese.

Bishop Zhan did not confirm the meeting to Asia News or discuss the recognition process in detail, but said there are regular meetings between Vatican and Chinese officials about the negotiations.

Two leading cardinals in the region have different views of Vatican diplomacy in China.

In a February 2017 article for the Hong Kong’s Sunday Examiner newspaper, Cardinal John Tong Hon of Hong Kong said the illicitly ordained bishops are willing to show their obedience to the Pope. He voiced optimism that the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association could transform into a more voluntary body.

In May 2017, the Archbishop Emeritus of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen voiced skepticism of the Vatican’s current diplomatic approach towards China. In his view, the Pope’s advisors are “giving bad advice.” He doubted the goodwill of the government.

“They are still controlling the Church and they want to control it even more,” he said.

However, Cardinal Zen has also voiced optimism about the clergy of the Chinese-recognized Catholic association.

“The majority of the priests and bishops in the official church, they may, in their heart, still (be) very much united with the universal church, but they are under tight control,” he told CNA in February 2017.