Pope recognises Shanghai bishop but China must respect the ‘spirit’ of its agreement with the Holy See

In a conciliatory move, Francis has decided to accept Bishop Shen Bin’s irregular transfer "for the good of the diocese”. In an interview, Secretary of State Card Pietro Parolin explains the papal decision. In it he calls for dialogue to continue but urges Chinese authorities to stop acting unilaterally. He stresses the need for regular communications between bishops and the pope and respect for underground communities. He expresses hope that the Holy See might open a liaison office in China.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – One hundred days after China decided in April to unilaterally transfer Bishop Joseph Shen Bin, 53, from Haimen to Shanghai, Pope Francis has accepted the decision.

But he did so by having the Vatican Secretary of State, Card Pietro Parolin, give an interview in which the latter explains that this appointment was a violation of the "spirit of dialogue" on which the provisional agreement on episcopal appointments is based, which the Holy See and China signed in 2018 and renewed in October 2022.

Card Parolin notes that by appointing Shen Bin as bishop of Shanghai, "Francis decided to rectify the canonical irregularity for the greater good of the diocese and the fruitful exercise of the bishop’s pastoral ministry.”

He adds that the Vatican is now asking Shen Bin to work with Chinese authorities to "favour a just and wise solution to some other pending issues in the diocese, like the position of two auxiliary bishops, Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, blocked, and Bishop Joseph Xing Wenzhi, retired.”

Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daquin is the prelate who has been de facto confined to Sheshan seminary since 2012 after he publicly refused to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the body the Chinese Communist Party uses to control the official Church. Bishop Joseph Xing Wenzhi is another auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, appointed in accordance with the agreement with the Holy See, who went missing in 2011 for reasons unknown.

In addition to explaining the pope’s motives for accepting the appointment, Card Parolin’s interview offers a very clear view of the difficulties the agreement currently faces and of the steps the Vatican now considers indispensable to get dialogue to move forward.

Since 8 September 2021, no bishop has been appointed with the approval of both sides even though a third of China’s dioceses are without a bishop.

The Vatican secretary of state notes that the agreement "revolves around the fundamental principle of mutual consent in decisions concerning bishops," a point that the Holy See is "trying to clarify in an open dialogue and respectful exchange with the Chinese side."

It is “indispensable that all episcopal appointments in China, including transfers, be made by consensus, as agreed, and to keep alive the spirit of dialogue between the Parties.

“Together we must prevent disharmonious situations that create disagreements and misunderstandings even within Catholic communities and the good application of the Agreement is one of the means to do so, together with sincere dialogue.”

In the interview, Card Parolin expressly mentions "three open questions in the Church in China: the Bishops' Conference, communication between Chinese bishops and the Pope, and evangelisation."

The Holy See wishes “to see bishops’ responsibility in leading the Church in China grow, and for this reason, it is necessary to have the bishops’ conference with a charter adapted to its ecclesial nature and pastoral mission recognised as soon as possible.”

He stresses that “regular communication between Chinese Bishops and the Bishop of Rome is indispensable for effective communion, insofar as it pertains to the structure and doctrine of the Catholic Church, which Chinese authorities have always said they do not want to alter." 

For the prelate, Beijing must realise that "Chinese Catholics, even those defined as ‘underground’, deserve trust, because they sincerely want to be loyal citizens and be respected in their conscience and faith." Hence, he urges Chinese authorities to overcome “mistrust towards Catholicism, which should not be considered a foreign religion, let alone one opposed to China’s great culture.”

While he is aware of the "obstacles" that "undermine trust and take away positive energy," he reiterates that "dialogue between the Vatican side and the Chinese side should remain open”. Indeed, “I believe that it is a path that is in some way a must."

To make it easier, he expressly calls for "the opening of a permanent Holy See liaison office in China.” This “would not only favour dialogue with civil authorities, but would also contribute to full reconciliation within the Chinese Church and to its journey towards a desirable normality."

Lastly, Parolin says, “we have signed an Agreement that can be defined as historic”; it “needs, however, to be fully applied and in the most correct manner possible.”

"Today we need goodwill, consensus and collaboration, which enabled us to enter into this forward-looking pact. The Holy See is determined to do its part to ensure that the journey continues."