The first formal agreement that the Vatican has managed to sign with the current government in Beijing on the appointment of bishops in China became a reality on September 22.
The former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Zen, at the centre of a media scrum at the Foreign Correspondents Club. Photo: © Fr Jim Mulroney
For the Vatican this is a monumental moment. In the 1950s, China introduced a system of self-elect and self-ordain for bishops without any reference to the traditional process of all bishops in the Church being appointed by the pope.
In the absence of any possible contact between the Church in China and the Vatican, many priests accepted the appointment from the government for a wide variety of reasons and acquiesced to internal pressure.
Others refused and chose clandestine ordination, which ultimately lead to the split in the Church which has continued to this very day.
The agreement is controversial, as many in the Church hold little trust in Beijing and fear it may be just one more way for China to extend its manipulative hand into the very heartland of Church authority.
But few agreements between states introduce anything new. Rather they simply ratify what has been an informally developing practice that has proven beneficial to both sides.
For well over a decade there have been tacit agreements between Beijing and the Vatican not to ordain bishops without a papal approval. Although this was ruptured between 2010 and 2012, when four illicit ordinations took place and one Vatican candidate was blocked, it has held up pretty well.
A former Columban parish church in Nanfeng, which was recently renovated. Photo: © Fr Jim Mulroney
Even the two-year rash of illicit ordinations did not tell the whole story.
China ordained its first self-elected bishop in the Wuhan area, of which the original Columban diocese of Hanyang was a part, in 1958, and in 2008 wanted to mark the 50th anniversary with the ordination of another bishop in what was a vacant diocese, but local opposition to its choice saw the date pass with nothing happening.
The matter went on the back burner while China hosted the Olympic Games, the Shanghai Expo and celebrated the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.
But in 2011, Fr Shen Gou’an was slated by the government to be ordained in Wuhan on May 28. He was not a popular choice with either the people or the priests, and sizeable opposition was mounted.
The day passed, but reportedly up to US$6 million had been spent promoting the ordination; paying off people in the right places and renovating significant Church buildings in the area, as well as paying villagers to ensure their attendance at the ceremony.
Placed under enormous pressure, Fr Shen finally had a letter sent to the Vatican saying that he did not want to be ordained without the Vatican nod. This prompted a quick visit to the Chinese embassy in Rome by Vatican officials and the ordination was called off.
The swiftness with which this was done signifies that it was not a new process and had been utilised previously. Undoubtedly it has been a constant conduit of communication for well over a decade.
As a journalist who has written on China-Vatican relations for the past 16 years, the cynical side of me says that in the current climate of renewed restriction of religion in China, no other than a flag-carrying party man will ever pass muster as a bishop, putting a bright red, indelible stamp on the Church.
However, my realistic shadow tells me that there is also sincerity on the Chinese side and to approach the matter from any other perspective would be simply churlish.
But while ‘what’s in it’ for the Vatican seems clear, ‘what’s in it’ for China is somewhat obscure.
At the Lunar New Year of 2016, Pope Francis sent an open letter of greeting, published by the Asian Times, an online news portal in Hong Kong, to the president and people of China.
The principal author of the greeting, Francisco Sisci, explained at a gathering at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong that the rise of China is the biggest challenge facing the west since the fall of Rome, but an emerging China struggles to operate in a world that does not really understand it.
He noted too that in 2015, Pope Francis and the president of China, Xi Jinping, were in the United States of America at the same time and the Chinese delegation was stunned at how the pope completely wiped their man off the media map.
Sisci described this as soft power, saying that it is the kind of influence China craves. He also pointed out that Xi and Pope Francis came into office on the same day and have continued to offer olive branches towards each other.
Francisco Sisci at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong. Photo: © Fr Jim Mulroney
The pope sent Xi a congratulatory telegramme and Xi responded by sparing him the negative publicity previous popes have been the butt of in Chinese media.
The agreement does go some way towards clearing the air between the two states. China always wanted the seven bishops ordained solely under government authority to be recognised by the Vatican. The pope has agreed to this. The pope has wanted to have the last say in the appointment of bishops and China has agreed to that.
An expert in religion and the rule of law in China, Liu Peng, notes that the accepted way of choosing bishop candidates will remain intact, but with the emerging name or names being sent to the pope for consideration. A papal refusal would result in further discussion or perhaps taking the matter back to the drawing boards.
This is one particular point where opponents of the agreement come to life. The chief protagonist of opposition, the former bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, parodied the arrangement as the pope on his knees before the president begging recognition of his existence.
The voice of Cardinal Zen is one that must be listened to, as he understands well Chinese ways and wiles and knows that the diocesan election system that chooses bishop candidates can be a total sham. Representatives of the voting panel are carefully chosen and those feared not to vote the right way often find the road to the polls blocked.
How this system will operate in the future only time will tell.
But in the words of the Global Times, a tabloid newspaper published by the People’s Daily in China, the Vatican is the historical continuity of thousands of years of western civilisation and the Chinese government the continuity of three millennia of history.
The paper editorialised, “This deal signals that, for the first time, these two civilisations are meeting as equals, in peace, without hatred or war or the petty calculations of trade.”
But for those who think this may signify a breakthrough in freedom of religion in China, it must be remembered that China chose the Ministry for Foreign Affairs to sign the deal, a body that does not meddle in internal, day to day operations.
But it will at least give an indication of how the dragon in Beijing will react in a situation that is not competitive or oppositional, and could well provide a rare insight into the mechanisms of a government where good will and betrayal can often sit in the same chair.
Columban Fr Jim Mulroney is the former Editor of the ‘Sunday Examiner’ in Hong Kong and now resides at the Columban house in Essendon.
Listen to Good will and betrayal
- Read more from The Far East, November/December 2018