The Church in mainland China has been divided for some 60 years between the underground Church, which is persecuted and whose episcopal appointments are frequently not acknowledged by Chinese authorities, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a government-sanctioned organization.
The agreement between the Holy See and Beijing was intended to normalize the situation of China’s Catholics and unify the underground Church and the CPCA.
Cardinal Re, who was confirmed as Dean of the College of Cardinals just six weeks ago, wrote to the cardinals that “with reference to the various public interventions” of Cardinal Zen, “I feel obliged to share some considerations and to offer some elements which favor a serene evaluation of the complex questions regarding the Church in China.”
For Cardinal Re, while St. John Paul II “on the one hand favored the return to full communion of the bishops consecrated illicitly in the course of the years beginning in 1958, and at the same time it was his desire to sustain the life of ‘clandestine’ communities which were led by ‘unofficial’ bishops and priests, on the other he promoted the idea of reaching a formal Accord with the governing Authorities on the nomination of bishops.”
That accord was eventually reached, he said, and signed in Beijing Sept. 22, 2018.
It is particularly surprising to the dean of cardinals that Zen has written that, “the accord signed is the same one which Pope Benedict had, at the time, refused to sign”.
“That assertion does not correspond to truth,” Cardinal Re stated.
“After having personally taken note of the existing documents in the Current Archive of the Secretariat of State, I am able to assure Your Eminence that Pope Benedict XVI had approved the draft of the Accord on the nomination of Bishops in China, which only in 2018 was it possible to sign.”
Cardinal Re was an official of the state secretariat from 1989 to 2000.
Because the deal provide for the pope’s intervention in bishop appointments in China, the dean said, “the expression ‘independent Church’ can no longer be interpreted in an absolute manner, as ‘separation’ from the Pope, as was the case in the past.”
“Unfortunately, there is slowness in drawing in loco all the consequences which derive from this epochal change both on the doctrinal and on the practical level and there persist dolorous tensions and situations,” Cardinal Re said.
“It is unthinkable, on the other hand, that a partial Accord -- the Accord touching, in fact, only the theme of the nomination of Bishops -- changes things in almost an automatic and immediate way in the other aspects of the life of the Church.”
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Cardinal Re objected to Cardinal Zen’s evaluation of the pope’s pastoral guidelines concerning the civil registration of clergy in China, saying that these guidelines “were designed precisely to safeguard the faith” in complicated and difficult situations.
Those guidelines recognize the choice of those who feel that they cannot in good conscience register with the government and accept sinicization. However, reports indicate that those who decline to register are facing harassment and persecution.
Cardinal Zen’s intervention, Cardinal Re said, “helps us to comprehend how difficult still is the path of the Church in China and how complex is the mission of pastors and of the Holy Father!”
“We are, therefore, all called to unite ourselves closely to him and to pray intensely for the Holy Spirit to support him and to support the communities of the Catholic Church in China, who despite suffering for a long time demonstrate their loyalty to the Lord, on the path of reconciliation, of unity and of mission at the service of the Gospel.”
The Vatican-China deal has been roundly criticized not only by Cardinal Zen, but also by human rights groups and religious freedom advocates in the US, and the Holy See has taken pains to defend and promote it.
Fewer than two weeks before Cardinal Re’s letter was sent, the Holy See publicized a meeting held between its Secretary for Relations with States and the Chinese foreign minister, during which the accord on episcopal appointments was discussed.