02/12/2024, 11.14
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Beijing and the Holy See: Positive signs tempered by heavy silence

by Gianni Criveller 柯毅霖

The three recent appointments of bishops indicate a willingness not to break. But the Agreement with the Vatican is never even mentioned by the People's Republic of China. While a "five-year plan" for Catholics has just come into force that cites Xi Jinping instead of the pope and invokes a "theological foundation" to a Sinicization that in fact remains only an adaptation to Party policy.


Milan (AsiaNews) - As I write the Chinese New Year, the high point of the year, is being celebrated at home and overseas. It is the year of the dragon, which among the twelve animals of the horoscope is the strongest and most loved: it is to be believed that many Chinese women will want to have a child in this year, considered the most fortunate of all.

Today's celebration catapults me into thinking about the Catholic faith in China, the fundamental theme of my life dedicated to the mission. From what we can know, 2024 should be a decisive year for dialogue between China and the Holy See: the 2018 agreement, renewed twice, will have to be permanently ratified or abandoned.

In recent days, news has arrived which has rightly been commented on positively by observers: three new bishops have been ordained, with the approval of both parties, in compliance with the agreement. 2023 had been an annus horribilis for the Holy See, with the sensational transfer to Shanghai of Bishop Shen Bin.

It was the second unilateral act by China which had ousted the Holy See from any consultation. The Vatican protested. It went on to accept what had happened, but requested it not reoccur.

The last three agreed ordinations, accompanied by the recognition by the Holy See of the establishment of a new diocese (Weifang, in the province of Shandong, with borders redrawn by the Chinese authorities) have given the impression that there is, on the Chinese side, the will not to break with Rome and to permanently ratify the agreement.

It should be remembered that this 'good' news must be contextualised: if it is true that the Pope appoints the bishops, they are not chosen by him but by an autonomous process led by the Chinese authorities, the details of which are not known, as the text of the agreement remains secret.

Those elected in China are therefore Catholic bishops, but at the same time certainly appreciated by the authorities.

Furthermore, it is worth highlighting that in no way, in China, are the Pope and the Holy See or the agreement mentioned when these appointments are announced. I fear that even during the liturgy of the ordination itself, the pontifical nomination is not given due prominence. In any case, the celebrations of episcopal consecrations have not been accessible to external observers for some time now.

This dissonance - appointments that seem to give strength to the agreement on one side; silence on the role of Rome on the other - is even more evident if you read the Five-Year Plan for the Sinicization of Catholicism in China (2023-2027).

This Plan, very detailed and divided into four parts and 33 paragraphs, was approved on 14 December 2023 by the official body that unites the Conference of Catholic Bishops (not recognized by the Holy See) and the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics: both they operate under the supervision of the United Front, the Communist Party office that governs the country's religious life.

The document was published on Christmas Day on the website of the Chinese Catholic Church. A similar document for the Protestant churches was released on December 19th.

Consisting of 5000 characters (corresponding to approximately 3000 Italian words), the 'Catholic' five-year plan never mentions the Pope and the Holy See; nor the agreement between the Vatican and China.

The leader Xi Jinping is nominated four times; five times it is reiterated that Catholicism must take on 'Chinese characteristics 中国特色'. The word sinicization (中国化) reigns supreme: it occurs 53 times.

The Plan is the work program to make the sinicization process deeper, ideological and effective: “It is necessary to intensify research to give theological foundation to the sinicization of Catholicism, to continuously improve the system of sinicized theological thought, to build a solid theoretical foundation for the sinicization of Catholicism, so that it constantly manifests itself with Chinese characteristics".

Those who have studied the religious policy of the Chinese government for years do not find any great innovations in this approach: what impresses us, however, is the firmness and peremptoriness of the language.

As if there had been no dialogue and no rapprochement with the Holy See; as if the pope's recognition of all Chinese bishops counted for nothing; as if there were no agreement between the Holy See and China that offers the world the impression that Roman Catholicism has found hospitality and citizenship in China.

As a theologian, I am impressed by the project of giving a theological foundation to sinicization. It is too easy for superficial observers to justify it, and to mistake this term as a stage in the legitimate ecclesial process of inculturation.

This is not the case: here there are no believers who freely seek a virtuous dialogue between the Catholic faith and their own cultural belongings. Rather, it is about imposition and, by an authoritarian regime, of the adaptation of the practice of faith to the religious policy established by the political authorities.

One hundred years ago, from May 15 to June 12, 1924, the Council of Shanghai was held, the first meeting of all the bishops of China (alas, then there were still no Chinese among them).

The council (the adoption of this term is interesting) was convened by the papal delegate Celso Costantini. The latter had been sent to China following the encyclical Maximun Illud of 1919, which required the missions to proceed along the path of inculturation.

Several missionaries, including the Superior General of PIME Paolo Manna (now blessed) had denounced the foreign character of the Catholic Church in China. In 1926, the first six Chinese bishops were finally ordained, and a few years later in Beijing, Costantini founded a school to create a Chinese Christian art.

Thus, the sinicization process began with serious delay. And in the centenary year of the Council of Shanghai it is necessary to reflect, historically and theologically, on these events and on the challenges for the future of faith in China.

What we believe is unacceptable is that the control by political authorities over Catholic believers - a control that they would like to pass off as sinicization - is conveniently and ambiguously justified in the name of the inculturation of the Gospel.

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