San Diego (AsiaNews) - Although there are converging interests between China and the Vatican on the appointments of bishops, the hopes of the two are different: the Holy See wants to make the Church a vital part of Chinese society; Beijing "really hopes to destroy it." This is the conclusion of a reflection of Prof. Richard Madsen, after Card. John Tong’s article on the future of Sino-Vatican dialogue from the ecclesiological point of view. Professor. Richard Madsen, is a sociologist of religions University of San Diego (California), involved in a long running collaboration with Fudan University in Shanghai.
I don’t have any inside information on the status of the negotiations between the Vatican and Beijing. I have been reading the various reports from the international media, Chinese media, and Church connected media. Based on my research over many years on the situation of the Chinese Catholic Church, here is what I would say.
First, I would be careful about assuming an agreement has been reached until there is an official announcement. In 1999 it was widely reported in the press that a normalization of Vatican-China relations was imminent and then it suddenly collapsed, leading to a new period of acrimony between Church leadership and the Chinese government. Back then as I understand it (back then from an insider closely connected with the negotiations) the stumbling block was the issue of the status of the “unofficial” or “underground” part of the Church. This remains, I think, a potential stumbling block.
This time, however, there are other factors that could lead to a successful negotiation. First, the initial goals seem relatively modest. Back in 1999, there was a whole package of issues including normal diplomatic relations with China and a severing of diplomatic ties to Taiwan. This time, the effort seems to be making relatively modest steps forward. Second, there is an at least partial convergence of interests in the issue involved.
The interests are in communication with and control over the Chinese Church hierarchy. The Xi Jinping regime wants to establish greater “rule by law” over China. It wants systematically articulated and enforced regulations to provide better centralized organization and control over the Chinese population. The Vatican wants what you might call greater rule by canon law. It wants better communication with Catholic bishops and church members and it would like to be sure that bishops and priests are upholding basic doctrinal orthodoxy and moral discipline and adhering to at least the basic principles of canon law.
A key part of the problem is the appointment of bishops. The great majority of bishops approved by the Chinese government in the official church are in fact also approved by the Vatican. This approval takes place through complicated, private negotiations between church officials and Chinese officials in a way fully satisfactory to neither side. There is an ad hoc quality to these negotiations. They are not based on publicly announced, formally approved procedures. Their success depends on local contingencies. And the information the Vatican has to carry out these negotiations is very imperfect. There is a Vatican representative assigned to Hong Kong, the equivalent of a nuncio or ambassador but without the official title, whose job it is to be a channel of communication with the Chinese church. But he himself is not allowed by the Chinese government to go to China and relies on information gathered by unofficial visitors to and from Hong Kong. It would be good for the Vatican if they could regularize this channel of communication and would be interesting to see if the negotiations lead to this.
It would also be good if there were a formal procedure for approving bishops that might be acceptable to both the Vatican and Chinese government. The negotiations seem focused on establishing such a formal procedure. The reference [in the past – ed] is to the “Vietnam model”, in which the Vatican proposes three candidates and the government choses one of them. News reports from China suggest that the Chinese proposal is that the government choses three candidates and the Vatican gets to pick one. This of course gives more balance of power to the Chinese government. It would be interesting to see if the Vatican accepts it or pushes for some sort of compromise.
Another issue is the status of bishops who have recently been approved for ordination by the government but rejected by the Vatican. There are apparently eight of these bishops currently in question. For accepting ordination without Vatican approval, they have been excommunicated. The Chinese government would like these excommunications to be lifted and the bishops given official approval. In accordance with the Year of Mercy proclaimed by the pope, the Vatican had seemed willing to lift the excommunications and even willing to grant official authority to at least four of the bishops. Some of the other four have violated church discipline by, for example, having wives or girlfriends and or done other things that would make them unacceptable to the church authorities. (Given the imperfections in the information flow, it might be difficult for the Vatican to have clear knowledge about such matters.) Some people say that there was a push to conclude the negotiations before the Year of Mercy officially ended at the end of November. But the quality of mercy is not strained and would be good regardless of deadlines. I have heard some indication that the Vatican would not be forced by such a deadline.
The final, difficult set of issues is the status of bishops of the unofficial or “underground” church, who profess loyalty to the pope but are not approved by the Chinese government. Many of these have been in prison and have otherwise suffered greatly for their faith. The Vatican would like better communication with and supervision of them. Many of them were ordained under provisions (since abrogated) that allowed underground bishops to choose successors without going through the normal approval process of the Vatican bureaucracy. They are used to independence and in some cases the Vatican might have questions about their orthodoxy or fitness to lead. (Channels of communication with them might be even worse than with officially recognized bishops.) The government would also like better control over them because it doesn’t like independent actors. But although there is some convergence of interests between the Vatican and the government, there is also significant divergence. The Vatican wants to respect and acknowledge the religious zeal and fidelity of these bishops, but the government wants to suppress them because of even slight potential that they could be a political threat. The most interesting and fateful part of the negotiations may thus be how they agree or disagree about the status of underground bishops and the faithful who follow them.
If the Vatican should be perceived as abandoning them, it could be seen as a betrayal by the underground part of the church and would cause serious divisions in the Chinese Catholic church. The government would probably actually like this. Its actions over the years show that it would like to see the church weakened, and a deeper division in the church would help accomplish that. Although there may be some convergence of interests between the Vatican and Chinese government about some aspects of governance of the Catholic church, there is certainly divergence of hope for the future of the Chinese Catholic church. The negotiators are surely aware of this.
Cardinal Tong’s new letter pretty much confirms this understanding. What is new to me is that they may reach an agreement on the first of the issues I mentioned without the other two. I would have thought that the three issues were a “package.” But there is more of a convergence of interests on establishing a formal method for choosing bishops. Cardinal Tong thinks this will build trust enabling the resolution of the other issues. And even if this is not perfect it is good to have “essential freedom.” But I would emphasize that the hopes of the two sides are very different: One side hopes to make the Church a vital part of Chinese society; the other side really hopes to destroy it. I hope that the Vatican negotiators are aware of this.