Vatican-China negotiations draw heat

Diplomats prefer difficult negotiations to be secret so that they are not disturbed by outsiders. Vatican diplomats are no different, but one big disturbance now is taking place in the current negotiations with China. The negotiations concern various issues, but a key one is whether the government or the Vatican will decide on the appointment of bishops.

The source of the disturbance is Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, 86-year-old retired archbishop of Hong Kong, who recently traveled to Rome to deliver a letter to Pope Francis from a Chinese bishop upset that Vatican emissaries had asked him to step down to make way for an illegitimate bishop. There are about 40 bishops in the “underground” Church and 60 in the official, government-recognized Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, but reportedly some have made known to Rome, confidentially, their allegiance to the pope.

The bishop whose letter to the pope was delivered by Cardinal Zen is Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou, who is 88.

Pope Francis received Cardinal Zen and, according to the cardinal, said that some time previously he had told Vatican diplomats not to create another “Cardinal Mindszenty case.” (This was a reference to the Hungarian primate imprisoned under the Communist regime in the 1950s who later found refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest for 15 years but was replaced by the Vatican with a primate the government accepted.)

Reported details of a deal

As reported by AsiaNews, Cardinal Zen was concerned that the Vatican negotiations were betraying those who had long suffered for their fidelity to the pope, and which implicated that Vatican diplomats were taking initiatives unknown to the pope.

In addition, AsiaNews broke a story, from a correspondent in China, that the bishop of Shantou was to be replaced by an excommunicated bishop, Giuseppe Huang Bingzhang, 51, while the “underground” Bishop Vincent Guo Xijn of Mindong, 60, had been asked by the Vatican to become either coadjutor or auxiliary of an illegitimate Bishop Zhan Silu, 57, not previously recognized by Rome.

The same AsiaNews article stated that the Vatican has been asked to recognize seven illegitimate bishops, but in exchange the government would recognize about 40 bishops of the underground Church and 20 candidates as bishops nominated by the Vatican for the official Church.

The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, in an interview with the Italian outlet La Stampa, denied any rift between Pope Francis and the Vatican negotiators.

“Pope Benedict XVI well represented the spirit of this dialogue in his 2007 Letter to Chinese Catholics, ‘the solution to existing problems cannot be pursued via an ongoing conflict with the legitimate civil authorities,’” Cardinal Parolin said. “In Pope Francis’ pontificate, the ongoing negotiations move exactly along these lines: constructive openness to dialogue and fidelity to the genuine Tradition of the Church.”

Voices of resistance

Father Bernardo Cervellera, director of the outlet AsiaNews, told Our Sunday Visitor he appreciated Cardinal Parolin’s interview for its acknowledgement that all could make errors and its affirmation that there was only one Catholic Church in China but two communities that must seek reconciliation.

The concern of Cardinal Zen and AsiaNews, said Father Cervellera, is that the voice of the Catholics who have resisted the government-controlled official Church is not being heard. “Even when they come to Rome they are not heard, whereas ‘official Catholics’ are given preferential treatment in the Vatican,” he said. Father Cervellera was a missionary in China and also worked closely with the Salesian Zen, who taught in official seminaries in China for six months each year from 1989-96.

“We have published letters from Chinese Catholics saying how confused or desperate they are by leaks about the details of the negotiations. Things have gotten worse for loyal Catholics during the four years of the negotiations with bishops being sent away from their dioceses,” he told OSV.

Father Cervellera noted China’s new regulations for religious affairs, which were to take effect Feb. 1. Since that time, it has been reported that minors have been banned from entering places of worship in several regions of the country.

A priest in Hebei province, who asked to remain anonymous, told that authorities had asked clergymen in some parts of the province to post signs prohibiting minors from entering religious venues, prayer houses and other church premises.

“If religious activities are carried out without permission, crippling fines will be imposed or prison and seizure of the buildings where the activities took place,” Father Cervellera said.

While the Vatican has cautioned against the creation of confusion regarding the state of a deal between the Holy See and China, Father Cervellera said that confusion is rather felt “by Chinese Catholics who never expected that the negotiators would heed those who have gone along with the government rather than those who have undergone persecution or, at least, discrimination because of their loyalty to Rome.”

The goal

Father Cervellera hears echoes of the Cardinal Mindszenty case, with the attitude to the negotiations seemingly influenced by Vatican negotiations with Communist Eastern Europe. Some said they were a sellout of the heroic Catholics who resisted the regimes.

“I was too young to follow those negotiations but later met priests who said the Vatican should have been tougher about the terms,” Father Cervellera said. He cited other working examples of religious communities in China.

“It could be helpful to look at the Protestants who are vigorous even without any negotiations — there are about 80 million Protestants and an estimated 12 million Catholics, around 5 million in the official Association and perhaps 7 million ‘underground’ Catholics.”

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He added, “The Vatican negotiators seem anxious to reach an agreement, perhaps partly because it could open the way for a papal visit to China. But an agreement which is felt as a betrayal by the most faithful Catholics would be hollow. The late Bishop Antonio Li Duan of Shanxi wisely said that the Vatican shouldn’t be in a hurry in the negotiations. Heeding the voices of the underground Catholics may complicate the negotiations but will also make them more substantial.”

A parallel development is the first-ever exchange of art exhibitions between the Vatican and China: In the spring, 40 Chinese objects from the Vatican Ethnological Museum will be on display in Beijing before going to Shanghai and elsewhere while 40 objects from China will be displayed in the Vatican Museums. The overall title of the exhibitions is “Beauty will unite us.” It brings soft diplomacy to the aid of negotiations, which are hard.

Desmond O’Grady writes from Rome. CNS contributed to this report.