Vatican City, Feb 15, 2017 / 00:01 am America/Denver (CNA).
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.”