10/24/2022, 00.00
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Agreement on bishops renewed, but Beijing still making life difficult for Chinese Catholics

by p. Gianni Criveller *

Part 2 of  PIME missionary and sinologist,  Fr. Gianni Criveller's analysis of the second renewal of the agreement on the appointment of bishops. "The Agreement is being used as an instrument of pressure on priests. The wonders taking place in China's Catholic communities are not a result of this religious policy, but in spite of it'. Read Part 1.

Rome (AsiaNews) - There is one issue around the second renewal of the Agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China on the appointment of bishops, that is particularly painful. It regards the civil registration requirment for members of the official church including priests and bishops belonging to unregistered communities (also called underground in Chinese) who wish to come out of "hiding".

Without this registration, pastoral activities in the official church are impossible.

The government decided to require such registration from people (and not just places of worship, as was previously the case) after the Agreement was signed. The text of the declaration to be signed includes the affirmation of the independence of the Catholic Church in China. Bishops and priests are put under pressure by the authorities with the absolutely false claim that the Secret Agreement with the Holy See encourages such registration. The fact that the text remains secret also has this negative implication for Chinese Catholics: they cannot challenge the version that unscrupulous officials give of it.

The Holy See intervened in the matter with a statement on 28 June 2019 revealing that 'independence' is to be understood as 'autonomy'. But it admits that, for reasons of conscience, priests and bishops can refuse to sign.

However, those who have not signed have run into the authorities' retaliation and their many ways of making ordinary life very difficult for those who refuse to submit. For example, the mobile phone app that allows shopping and many other tasks of daily life is rendered unenforceable: by now, almost all money transactions are carried out electronically in China.

Some of those who have registered are now suffering from the criticism of family and community members opposed to registration, which sincere Catholics consider unacceptable, who cannot sign a declaration that includes an affirmation of the Church's independence. Consequently, among those who agreed to register, quite a few regretted it. Perhaps, like St Paul, they felt freer when they were imprisoned for consistency with their faith.

Among the Chinese observers and friends with whom I spoke, this thought has emerged: if the Holy See rejects the agreement, it exposes Chinese Catholics to even greater difficulties and retaliation.

So the agreement is a lesser evil, designed to avoid greater evils. Unfortunately, I fear this is the case. If this were true, however, it would show that it is not a bona fide agreement between two different, distant parties, adversaries even, but eager to find common ground. It would be an understanding in which one party imposes itself and the other party suffers. If this were the case, the agreement would have a paradoxical outcome, namely to make the Church not more, but less free.

There are still overly benevolent portrayals of the Catholic affair in China in recent years and the claim that, all things considered, the Agreement works. It seems to us that things are more complex. Certainly there is no shortage of wonderful things among Chinese Catholics: not because of religious policy, but in spite of it; not because of the success of the Accord, but because of the admirable resilience of Chinese Catholics.

And dialogue with China, as with any interlocutor, should not mean the renunciation of words of truth on numerous unacceptable events: the lack of religious freedom and human and political rights; the repression of rights to which the peoples of Tibet, Xinjiang and Mongolia are subjected; the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong; the dangers for Taiwan.

We have often wondered why China renews the Agreement with the Holy See, but then makes its implementation so difficult, or applies it just enough to induce the Vatican not to renege on it. The question is why China makes an agreement with the Vatican, but makes the lives of Catholics more difficult now than in the previous 30 years. The fear is that the nation's leaders are not sincere in this dialogue, and that they have a political agenda that is not to find an honourable compromise with the Holy See.

There is certainly an important image gain for Beijing. Pope Francis is critical of the powers of the West and open to the reasons of the emerging countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, which have so far been penalised in the international context. An agreement with this pontiff can only be a strength in the community of nations. This is a legitimate goal on the part of the Chinese government, but one that unfortunately does not correspond to the concession of an improvement in the lives of Catholics.

The concern is also that the Chinese authorities see the agreement with the Vatican as instrumental to the further isolation of Taiwan. The Holy See is the only world authority of certain prestige to maintain a formal diplomatic relationship with Taipei (even if it is rather downgraded in the concrete behaviour of Vatican diplomacy). Reunification with the island is a priority in Xi Jinping's nationalist policy, and therefore China would like the Holy See to remove all recognition of Taiwan, to be led back - sooner rather than later, by hook or crook - to the "motherland".

It is true that the agreement between the Holy See and China took place without the Vatican having to sever its relations with Taiwan. This is a positive fact. It is a pastoral and not a diplomatic agreement, but it still has a political character. It is to be hoped that a window of opportunity will be found for the Holy See not to abandon Taiwan even if it establishes closer relations with China.

Pope Francis has said that despite the possibility of being deceived and despite everything, there is no other way but dialogue. One can only agree. There is no other way but dialogue. And dialogue with stubborn interlocutors is an even more meritorious challenge. And it is admirable that the pontiff wants to overcome his interlocutors in generosity and sincerity, and the difficulties they pose.

When we point out the difficulties in this dialogue, it is not because we want to interrupt it. It is out of consistency with the information that reaches us from our brothers and sisters from China, and out of respect for the difficulties that they experience and tell us of with apprehension and pain. For our part, we pray wholeheartedly, and we commit ourselves to the best of our ability, so that the Pope's wishes for China and the Catholic community of that great and beloved country be realised. They are also ours and those of all Catholics who love the Pope and China.

* PIME missionary and sinologist

(Part 1 of this article was published on Saturday 22 October 2022. Click here to read it)

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