In the Vatican, there is a saying about China: "China holds a sharp stick. Any time the Holy See extends the hand to hold it, it gets the sharp end of the stick, and its hand bleeds."
News about an imminent agreement between China and Vatican has been spreading rapidly in recent days. The Holy See's possible decision to recognize seven illicitly ordained bishops has been described as a Vatican bow to the Chinese government. And a request that two bishops of the underground Church step down from their positions to make room for the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association has created a serious discussion within the Catholic Church.
Is an agreement really imminent? What are the odds that the Holy See and China will finalize it? And how should the underground Church, who has been living under persecution, feel about that?
This report is based on a series of conversation conducted with Vatican officials who are familiar with talks between the Holy See and China. They have asked for anonymity, because of the confidentiality of the information shared with CNA.
The sources explained that no agreement has been finalized yet, and no forecast can be made about its timing. There remain "many issues open" regarding the procedures for appointing new bishops and the "healing" of the situation of some bishops.
The first issue is that the agreements find resistances within the China. "We do expect" a source told CNA, "there will be resistances. Even after Benedict XVI letter to Catholics in China, there were a series of [episcopal] ordinations with the approval of Beijing and the Vatican, and after those also some illicit ordinations, that took place without the Vatican's approval."
The second issue at stake is the weight the Holy See wants to give to the agreement. Namely, who will sign it? If it is not the Secretary of State, there would need to be a Papal provision for a lower-ranked official to be able to sign it.
According to CNA's sources, there have been two bilateral working groups: one is at the level of the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry, and Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, Vatican undersecretary for Relations with States; the other included the Vatican's sub-secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, while on Chinese side there was a representative of the Foreign Affairs Minister and members of the State Administration for Religious Affairs and of the United Front," a coalition of the legally permitted political parties in the country.
The third issue deals with the regularization of the seven bishops illicitly ordained by Beijing. At the beginning, the Holy See considered only some bishops acceptable, because some had been declared excommunicated by the Holy See. However, the Holy See determined that bishops previously excommunicated were willing to seek a pardon from the pope, and to explicitly request communion with Rome.
Once this hurdle was overcome, there was a need to assign newly recognized bishops to a diocese, and there were two dioceses were an illicitly ordained bishops was assigned to the same diocese as an underground bishops.
This is the reason why a Vatican delegation asked Bishops Peter Zhuan Jinjian and Joseph Guo Xijing of Shanthou and Xiapu Mindong to step down.
The request was "very painful," and the bishops "painfully accepted." Sources explained that Bishop Zhuan Jianjian will get the title of "emeritus bishop," to implicitly recognize his work done as underground bishop and to show pastoral attention to the underground Church. Bishop Guo was offered the opportunity be an auxiliary bishop, the sources maintain.
Sources underscore that "this is not ideal," but that the agreement can be compared "to past concordats, when states wanted to control the Church and the Church had to safeguard the principle that it is always the Pope who appoints a bishop."
What will the agreement look like? It has been speculated that the agreement could be similar to that of the Holy See made with Vietnam in 1996: the Holy See proposes a set of three bishops to the Hanoi government, Hanoi indicates the favourite, and then the Pope formally appoints that bishop.
In fact, the procedure will be different, according to CNA's sources. There is the possibility that the Chinese bishops' conference would proposes names to the Pope, and the Pope would make his choice with a particular sensitivity to those candidates preferred by the government.
Would this solution be acceptable? Chinese of the underground Church, who have been living under danger and persecution for years, have noted that bishops of the Chinese bishops' conference are really the bishops of the Patriotic Association. That means that it would, in fact, be the government making proposals.
The leadership of the Chinese bishops' conference was renewed at the end of 2016. The president of the Chinese Conference is John Fan Xingyao, Bishop of Linyi, who has twofold Vatican and Chinese recognition. The board of vice presidents includes illicit bishops Lei Shiyin of Leshan, Huang Bingzhang of Shantou, and Yue Fusheng of Harbin-Heilongjiang, and also the official (and licit) bishops Shen Bin of Haimen and Meng Qinglu of Hohhot. Illicit Bishop Ma Yingling of Kumming is the president of the Council of Bishops.
The illicit bishops have a strong majority within the top ranks of the Chinese episcopal conference. According to critics, this kind of agreement would make it easy for the Chinese government to impose its will on episcopal appointments. According to those who back this kind of agreement, this would ensure that bishops are selected in an ecclesial environment.
No matter how it will be tailored, the agreement will not conclude the experience of the underground Church of China. There will be just one positive aspect: after the agreement, and as long as it holds, there will be no illicit bishops in China.
But there are still some further issues at stake. Effective Feb. 1, 2018, the revised Chinese Religious Affairs Regulations will bring new challenges the underground Church, as its members are de facto obliged to enter the Patriotic Association.
None of those who have gone underground and suffered want to adhere to the new regulations, as they do not want to be in an independent Church, separated from communion with Rome.
However, the promoters of the agreement stressed that "there have been some soft statements from Chinese officials that 'independence' just means 'political and economic' independence."
This position stands on a thin line. The economic independence of Churches seems to recall the Three Autonomies Movement, started in 1950 by a Christian manifesto formulated by some Protestant churches. The manifesto proclaimed those Churches free from "imperialist powers" and backed land reform. The government approved the movement, but many Catholics did not adhere to it, refusing any separation from the Holy See.
Recently, the Holy See announced the death of two Bishops, Luke Li Jingfeng of Fengxiang and Matthias Yu Chengxin. In a Jan. 3 Holy See Press Office Press Release, the Holy See emphasized that both the bishops had been arrested because of their opposition to the Three Authonomies Movement.
That release could be seen to clarify where the Holy See stands, and that the fidelity of Chinese Catholics has not been forgotten.
However, "it seems normal that those who have been living in persecution felt abandoned and discouraged," a source noted. But, the source added ""the underground Church is still alive because there are talks with the government," and offered the example of Bishop Taddheus Ma Daqin.
Bishop Ma was appointed a bishop July 7, 2012, with the two-fold approval of Rome and Beijing. In a sign of obedience with the Pope, Bishop Ma stepped down from Patriotic Association. He was arrested. Though he recanted, made a profession of submission and concelebrated Mass with the illicit bishop of Xiapu-Mindong, it was not enough to set Bishop Ma free.
A source added that there are two Chinese bishops who have completely disappeared. The Holy See asks for news about them at every meeting, the source said. The response is always that Beijing knows nothing.
On the other hand, it must be noted that Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou was freed from prison Jan. 27, and went back to his diocese after 8 months of captivity, and attempts to force him to join the Patriotic Association. Was his liberation a sign of good will from the Chinese government?
It is possible, source maintain. They also said that "the Holy See is not naive to think that the Chinese government will change," but that "it is nonsense to multiply underground bishops, thus generating turmoil with ecclesial communities."
Certainly, there is always a bigger issue at stake: religious freedom.
A source told CNA: "It is unthinkable at the moment to take out the cage in which the Catholics in China are living. But we are working to enlarge the cage."