The story of Bishop Peng
John Peng Weizhao, 56, was ordained a priest in 1989. He was secretly ordained the bishop of Yujiang as an underground bishop on April 10, 2014. Peng was called to succeed Bishop Thomas Zeng Jingmu, who had spent 23 years in prison and died in 2016. Bishop Peng was arrested a few days after his ordination as bishop and was only released several months later, in November 2014.
Erected in 1885, the Diocese of Yujiang is located in the province of Jiangxi and is a suffragan, together with four other dioceses, of the Archdiocese of Nanchang. The Chinese government wants the five ecclesiastical provinces to be merged under the single Diocese of Shaanxi.
Thus, Peng left his post as bishop of Yujiang to “regularize himself,” agreeing to become the auxiliary bishop of Li Suguang, who has been the official, state-accredited bishop of Nanchang since 2010 — for what is called the Diocese of Jiangxi.
However, the Vatican communiqué explained that the Holy See does not recognize this diocese.
Why the Chinese move?
The reason for the move by the Chinese is unclear and somewhat surprising, given there had been several signs of détente before the agreement was renewed.
At the latest Communist Party congress, President Xi Jinping strengthened the program of “Sinicization” of religions and increased pressure on Catholics to join the Patriotic Association.
But some sources say that authorities may be reacting to the fact that the Holy See rejected a candidate for the episcopate proposed by Beijing. This detail is not officially confirmed, but it could have particular weight.
More than a year has passed since the most recent appointment of a bishop in China — Archbishop Cui Qingqi, ordained in Wuhan-Hankou on Sept. 8, 2021.
Since the agreement entered into force, only six bishops have been appointed, and for two of them, the nomination procedure was already in an advanced state before the signing of the agreement.
In short, despite the deal, there are many vacant dioceses — a sign of many challenges despite the alleged goodwill.
One of these challenges is the Communist Party’s constant pressure on priests to “register” with the Patriotic Association since 2018. On this question, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, then prefect of Propaganda Fide, gave an interview published in the Vatican’s official newspaper on Feb. 4, 2019.
Beijing has continued its attempt at forced assimilation of Catholics and the Church in China to Chinese Communist Party doctrine. Beijing has also attempted to force the Vatican to recognize its subdivision of dioceses. This move was — presumably — not part of the agreement, although it impacted the appointment of bishops.
The Holy See’s response
The public response of the Holy See clearly said the Diocese of Jiangxi “is not recognized by the Holy See” and that what happened “did not take place in accordance with the spirit of dialogue existing between the Vatican and the Chinese parties and what was stipulated in the Provisional Agreement on the appointment of bishops, on Sept. 22, 2018.”
“We are talking about the spirit of the agreement, not about the deal itself. But it is a spirit that speaks of mutual trust and dialogue, which for the Holy See was broken by Beijing with its unilateral decision.”
In the end, the Holy See wanted to reaffirm its position. As explained by a Vatican source involved in the China dossier, who asked for anonymity, “in every dialogue, we highlight the question of religious freedom, and we address, in the ways we can, the question of bishops who are prevented from carrying out their ministry.”
From this view, the Holy See does not take a public position on human rights such as religious freedom, precisely in the “spirit of dialogue” with the Communist Party that it does not want to undermine.
With the declaration, the Holy See issued a warning that Beijing has broken the trust climate, which must be restored. But, at the same time, it did not close the way to dialogue.
The Nov. 26 statement reads that “the Holy See hopes that similar episodes will not be repeated, awaits appropriate communications on the matter from the authorities, and reaffirms its full willingness to continue the respectful dialogue concerning all matters of common interest.”
For now, the Holy See’s doors remain open. The question is: until when?