.- Hopes are on the rise for an agreement between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops, with Cardinal John Tong Hon, Archbishop of Hong Kong again making the case for a possible proposal.
He made his case in a Feb. 11 article for the Hong Kong's Sunday Examiner newspaper, and follows up on his previous article from August 2016. His latest article is filled with a certain optimism.
Cardinal Tong wrote that a Vatican-China agreement on appointing bishops will be “the crux of the problem and a milestone in the process of normalizing the relationship between the two parties,” but it is “by no means the end of the issue.” It would be “unrealistic, if not impossible” to expect disagreements to be cleared up overnight.
To summarize, Cardinal Tong maintained that Chinese government will finally recognize the Pope as the supreme authority of the Church, and the Pope will be given the power to veto any candidate to the episcopacy he does not deem fit for the post. The cardinal also explained that the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, that is the state-controlled church, will turn into a voluntary body with which bishops can freely affiliate. He voiced optimism for the eventual reconciliation of the seven illicit bishops appointed without the Pope's consent. The cardinal also hoped for the future recognition of the bishops of the “underground Church.”
Despite the general optimism seen in Cardinal Tong’s words, the final agreement is yet to come, a source with knowledge of the Vatican-China talks told CNA under condition of anonymity.
The source explained the agreement this way: “The Chinese government wants to keep control of the appointment of bishops, and Rome cannot diminish the supreme authority of the pontiff. So, we meet in the middle.”
One possible plan for agreement is that “the Holy See may accept the election of candidate for the episcopate, though it knows that these elections take place under state control and that bishops of China’s bishops’ conference all belong to the government-controlled patriotic association.”
On the other hand, the source added, the Chinese government would “accept that any 'election' needs to be approved by the Pope, even though no elections should take place to appoint a bishop.”
The source compared this situation of mutual agreement to a famous image of three monkeys: “I don’t see, I don’t hear, I don’t speak.” He added that “although the Holy See is conscious that elections are not free, they are fake,” Vatican negotiators prefer to “silently accept this, in order to have bishops faithful to Rome and in communion with the Pope since the beginning.”
Cardinal Tong, in his latest article, noted that Catholic doctrine places the Pope as “the last and highest authority in appointing bishops.” This means that “if the Pope has the final word about the worthiness and suitability of an episcopal candidate, the elections of local churches and the recommendations of the bishops’ conference of the Catholic Church in China will simply be a way to express recommendations.”
Cardinal Tong thus aimed to respond to the concerns of Cardinal Joseph Zen, his predecessor as Archbishop of Hong Kong. In speeches, letters and articles, Cardinal Zen took a strong position against the agreement, saying that it undermined the authority of the Holy See. Cardinal Zen asked the Holy See not to make any agreement before China guarantees full religious freedom.
According to Cardinal Tong, there are three issues at stake: how to tackle the issue of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association; how to deal with the seven illicitly ordained bishops, who are excommunicated latae sententiae for having violated canon law; and how to handle the issue of more than 30 bishops from the underground Church, whom the Chinese government does not recognize.
The cardinal said a relationship between the patriotic association’s concept of an “independent, autonomous and self-run Church” and the self-nominating and self-ordination of bishops is “a relationship between theory and practice.” Both practices “are in fact the product of a distinctive political environment and pressure.”
The Archbishop of Hong Kong said that under the possible agreement the Pope will “now play a role in the nomination and ordination of Chinese bishops” and that “Beijing will also recognize the Pope's right of veto and that the Pope is the highest and final authority in deciding on candidates for bishop in China.”
According to Cardinal Tong, this way the Vatican-China agreement would turn the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association into “a patriotic association in its strict, literal sense,” that is: “a voluntary, non-profit, patriotic and Church-loving organization composed of clergy and faithful from all around the country.”
The situation is far more complex than this, since de facto every “official” bishop recognized by Beijing is required to be a member of the patriotic association. Critics of the possible agreement noted the case of Shanghai auxiliary Bishop Taddeus Ma Daqin, who dared to resign from the association at his ordination Mass in 2012 and was immediately placed under house arrest. Though he appeared to renounce his stand against the Catholic Patriotic Association in mid-2016, he is still living in isolation in Shanghai’s Sheshan seminary, with no episcopal dignity.
In addition to this situation, UCA News has reported that China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs on Jan. 26 posted a decision to “enhance government legal powers over religious work” through an amended regulation in order to “maintain accountability via the strict management of Communist Party members.”
The Chinese administration also stressed that the Chinese administration said it would “steadily push forward” to the Catholic Church “to elect and ordain bishops on its own.” This is a positive sign for Sino-Vatican relations, observers said.
If the problem of the appointment of bishops would finally find a solution, a solution would still be needed for the seven bishops who were illicitly ordained and thus de facto excommunicated.
Beyond the illicit ordination, some of these bishops are also accused of moral misconduct that needs to be assessed.
The difficulty, as Cardinal Tong says, is that given the unstable relationship between China and the Holy See, the Holy See cannot investigate directly. Thus the Chinese official institutions would need to investigate, a process that would take time.
The Pope is the only one who can lift such an excommunication. Participants in the illicit consecration can secure a papal pardon but they “need to show repentance,” the cardinal said. He added that all of the bishops illicitly ordained are willing to pay their obedience to the Pope.
According to CNA’s Vatican source, the Holy See is looking for a “midway point” for the election of bishops and an agreement between “the practice of choosing candidates by a diocesan patriotic commission” and finding candidates that “can be also appreciated and accepted by the underground community.”
The source also added that “it is undeniable that the agreement does not fulfill all the requirements, we are not satisfied with that.”
“Anytime there is an agreement, it means that you lose some freedom. That is a problem for us. But we do understand that at the moment we cannot do anything better,” the source said.
The agreement could be a solution that would allow the appointment of bishops in still-vacant dioceses. The Chinese administration abolished some dioceses, and the Holy See could dissolve some dioceses too to address the current situation.
“Once, some dioceses were entrusted to missionary congregations, and nowadays these congregations are no more, and there are no more foreign missionaries in continental China,” the source said.
The possibility of a “Vietnam solution” for the appointment of bishops was even put on the table.
The agreement will likely be based on Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s model implemented in Vietnam back in 1996: the Holy See proposes a set of three bishops to the Hanoi government, and Hanoi makes its choice.
However, CNA's source maintained, “China always dismissed a Vietnam solution.” For him, the situation in Vietnam is “completely different.”
Despite the initial difficulties like Hanoi’s delayed responses that left dioceses vacant for a long period, the Vietnam situation has worked out decently and there is a relationship of significant trust between the parties.
The Holy See has appointed a non-resident envoy to Hanoi, a first step toward the possible establishment of diplomatic ties.
The Chinese situation is even more complex, and also implies the necessity that the Chinese administration will recognize the 30 underground bishops.
According to Cardinal Tong, this problem is “not deadlocked.” In his view, the underground Church results from a special political and historic period when “there was no mutual trust between the Holy See and Beijing, and this indirectly led to a lack of trust between the government and the unofficial community bishops.”
However, the cardinal notes, “should there be an agreement between the Holy See and China that will imply considerable mutual trust between the parties. The bishops of the unofficial community would no longer be regarded as the opposition for insisting on religious principles.”
This means the government’s view of them would improve.
Cardinal Tong also underscored several times that the underground bishops in China are in fact “examples of patriotic citizens.”
He said the government attitude towards these unofficial communities has “changed a lot in recent years.” As mutual trust develops between Rome and Beijing, so too will stability and strength.
The talks for an agreement do not include the establishment of diplomatic ties. That will come later, according to CNA's source knowledgeable of the Sino-Vatican dialogue.
At the moment, the Holy See’s nunciature to China is established in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. The country is seen by the People’s Republic of China as no more than a rebel province.
The Holy See relationship with Taiwan is one of the biggest hurdles to the establishment of any diplomatic tie with China.
In recent decades, the nunciature has no longer been headed by a nuncio, but by a lower ranked diplomat, a chargé d'affairs. Msgr. Paul Fitzpatrick Russell, the most recent chargé d'affairs, was appointed apostolic nuncio to Turkey in March 2016, thus leaving a vacancy in the post.
It was thought that the vacancy was intended to ease relations between the Holy See and mainland China. The post in fact did not stay vacant. The new chargé d'affairs is Msgr. Sladan Cosic. The nomination was not publicly announced, and this has also a meaning.
According to CNA’s Vatican source, the Holy See would be ready to drop its diplomatic presence in Taiwan, but this would not harm relations there. The Holy See could even strengthen its presence on the Taiwanese territory, with a more specific focus on pastoral concerns.