Fr Gianni Criveller, PIME missionary and China expert, looks at the provisional agreement after a two-year period in which only two bishops were appointed. Restrictions on religious practice continue with unprecedented harshness. China’s role in the ongoing dialogue raises doubts about its sincerity.CHINA – VATICAN A second renewal of the agreement on episcopal appointments announced
Rome (AsiaNews) – The Holy See today officially announced the renewal of the agreement with China on the appointment of bishops. This came with two interviews addressing its key aspects.
Secretary of State Card Pietro Parolin spoke to Vatican News about the appointment of only six bishops. “These are the first ones, while other procedures are ongoing. At the same time, we are aware that there are still many vacant dioceses, as well as others that have very elderly bishops. There are also dioceses in which the path to reconciliation, so greatly desired by Pope Francis, is setting the rhythm. Finally, there are dioceses in which, despite all efforts and good will, no fruitful dialogue exists with local authorities.
“We sincerely hope that in the next biennium we can continue to identify, according to the established procedure, good candidates for the episcopate for the Church that is in China. Of course, we do not hide the numerous difficulties that affect the concrete life of the Catholic communities, which enjoy our utmost attention, and for the good solution of which new steps forward are necessary in a collaborative relationship that has multiple protagonists: the Holy See, the central authorities, the bishops with their communities, and the local authorities.”
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle also gave his thoughts on the significance of the agreement in Fides: “The Holy See has never spoken of the agreement as the solution of all problems. It has always been perceived and affirmed that the path is long, it can be tiring, and that the agreement itself could cause misunderstandings and disorientation. The Holy See does not ignore and does not even minimize the differences of reactions among Chinese Catholics in the face of the agreement, where the joy of many is intertwined with the perplexities of others. It is part of the process. But one always has to dirty ones hands with the reality of things as they are.”
What follows are comments by Fr Gianni Criveller, PIME missionary and China expert.
As Pope Francis and Card Pietro Parolin hinted at in recent months, the agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China has been finally renewed for another two years. The Vatican Press Office made the announcement today.
The renewal is a provisional, an interesting detail since, as far as we know, the original plan in 2018, the year when the agreement was first signed, included a possible extension of two years (which happened in 2020) to be followed by a formal agreement or its suspension. This must be taken with a pinch of salt since we had no access to any written documents, but received information at the time from authoritative sources.
Two years later, in October 2022, the agreement was neither suspended nor finalised. It was provisionally renewed. This is a clear sign that, at least on the part of the Vatican, the only party to issue a public statement on the matter, there is a desire to continue the dialogue but also a certain dissatisfaction with the results obtained so far. We believe that the Holy See did not casually renew the agreement, but did so acutely aware of its historical responsibility and of what is a stake in terms of the lives of believers, the faith and evangelisation in China.
On 11 April 2022, Card Parolin said that he hoped that the negotiations then underway would provide clarifications and even the “revision of some points”. We do not know whether his eminent wishes were granted. We fear not.
For his part, the pope himself, on at least two occasions, on 1 September 2021 and in the interview with Reuters last July, said that things are going slowly with fewer results than expected. However, he also noted that something had been done, that is, some appointments, and that it was necessary to go forward on the path of dialogue. He added that China’s pace, which he described as slow, must be taken into account because the country has a long historical perspective and is not in a hurry.
Observers and Vatican officials have suggested that the pandemic, by preventing direct contact for more than two years, probably played a role in the accord’s limited success. However, the latter is still secret, and so it is hard to precisely assess its results.
AsiaNews recently outlined the episcopal appointments following the agreement, noting a total of six, two of which had already been made before the agreement. Six bishops were installed in their dioceses, three are unofficial, recognised by the government; and three who have not yet entered the dioceses assigned to them.
It should be noted that before the agreement, notwithstanding some deplorable cases of illegitimate elections (i.e. not recognised by the Holy See), there were cases in which the Holy See and the Chinese authorities picked the same person independently of one another. In some cases, one side eventually recognised the other’s choice. So agreeing on episcopal appointments should not be that hard.
In 2021, only two appointments were made; none this year. This is very modest indeed, considering the large number of dioceses without a bishop – at least 36, more than a third of the 96 dioceses recognised by the Chinese government.
This unresolved situation shows that the agreement is not the driving force that could revive Church life in China. These ought to be the best years for new and numerous appointments; in fact, there is no shortage of priests in episcopal age, nor lack of candidates. By contrast, the future might see a decline in the number of priests suitable for appointment since China too has experienced fewer candidates for the priesthood, to which must be added the priests who leave the ministry.
In the two decades before the agreement, Liu Bainian, the historic leader of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, justified the massive recourse to illegitimate episcopal ordinations, like the one of 6 January 2000, by the need to appoint a bishop in every diocese. In fact, he even accused the Vatican of preventing the Catholics from having their pastors. This means that even Chinese authorities realise that there is no Catholic life without bishops. Yet Chinese Catholic communities have had to cope with a situation that weakens their practice and this for a long time. Perhaps this is what they want.
This is only one aspect of the inconsistencies that cast doubt on the government’s sincerity in the ongoing dialogue. The legislation of 1 February 2018 that regulates religious practice in a highly restrictive way is applied with a degree of severity never seen before, even if not uniformly over time and across the country. Particularly serious is the harshness with which in some places minors are banned from taking part in religious services, and receiving the doctrine and the sacraments. This puts the transmission of the faith at grave risk.
Unlike the past, witnesses from the universal Church are not allowed to attend episcopal ordinations, even if this is in the agreement. Uca News, the news agency promoted by the Asian Churches, used to send observers to episcopal ordinations. Not anymore. Uca News no longer has a China desk.
Ordinations in China take place under the watchful control of police and religious affairs officials. Such monitoring covers the smallest details such as videos and photographs. Although provided for in the agreement, the announcement of the pontifical appointment is not always read during the ceremony.
It is unusual for bishops to meet freely in China. Gatherings between bishops and priests from different provinces are strongly discouraged. Activities within the same province are carried out more easily, but some bishops and priests feel isolated, left alone, which makes it easier for them to poorly exercise their authority and manage resources.
Training bishops, including that of the new bishops appointed by the pope, is almost non-existent. Unless one views political indoctrination of bishops by the authorities as training.
*PIME missionary and China expert
(first part – the second will be published next Monday, 24 October 2022)