Is the Holy See reaching a breakthrough with Beijing?

China's flag waves as Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in June. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

There has been much recent speculation in the media that the Holy See and China are moving closer to reaching a historic agreement on the crucial question of the nomination of bishops. This has provoked different reactions inside and outside mainland China.

Cardinal John Tong, the bishop of Hong Kong, has reflected much on this and today published a very important article in Chinese, English and Italian on this subject and also comments on the questions and criticisms that have been raised about the Sino-Vatican dialogue.

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He begins the article by recalling that since “the establishment of the new China in 1949” when the Communists (he does not use the word) came to power and expelled the papal representative in 1951 “the unity between the Catholic Church in China and the universal church has become more and more difficult.”

Now things are changing he writes, and “fortunately, after working for many years on this issue, the Catholic Church has gradually gained the reconsideration of the Chinese government, which is now willing to reach an understanding with the Holy See on the question of the appointment of bishops in the Catholic Church in China and seek a mutually acceptable plan.”

He said the aim of this understanding is twofold: “not to harm the unity of the Catholic Church and the essential right of the Roman Pontiff to appoint bishops,” and “not to let the pope’s right to appoint bishops be considered an interference in the internal affairs of China.”

In his article, the cardinal addresses not only these questions but also the situation of the illegitimate bishops—those who have asked for reconciliation with the pope and the few who have not—the situation of the underground bishops and their recognition by Beijing, the question of the Bishops Conference in China (which is not recognized by Rome because underground bishops are excluded) and the fate of those in prison.

He also seeks to respond to those who wonder whether with such an agreement the pope and Vatican officials “may be going against the principles of the church” and contradicting what Benedict XVI wrote in his 2007 Letter to Catholics in China.

The cardinal affirms his conviction that “even though the concrete terms of the mutual agreement have not been made public, we believe that Pope Francis, as the protector of the unity and communion of the universal Church, would not accept any agreement that would harm the integrity of faith of the universal Church or the communion between the Catholic Church in China and the universal Church.”

Asked by America why in his article he made no mention of the Patriotic Association which exercises control on behalf of the Beijing government over the Catholic church on the mainland, Cardinal Tong said, “The association’s rationale and outlook were implied in the article. In his 2007 Letter, Pope Benedict XVI did not mention the association in the text, but only referred to it in a footnote, Number 36."

In his article, the cardinal seeks to provide an answer, especially for Chinese priests, regarding the following four questions “in order to avoid any unnecessary misunderstanding”:

• Why does the Holy See persistently insist on dialogue rather than confronting the Chinese government?

• What does it mean by communion between the particular churches and the universal church?

• On what criteria should the bishops in the local churches of mainland China be appointed?

• What role does the so-called Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China have and what is its relationship with individual dioceses?

The cardinal, who turned 77 on July 31, has been the director of the Holy Spirit Study Centre, a leading Catholic research center on China and the church in Hong Kong, since its founding in 1980. He also heads the largest Chinese diocese in the world, Hong Kong, and will do so for one more year because when he turned 75 in 2014, Pope Francis asked him to remain on as bishop for three more years.

Cardinal Tong revealed that he began to write this article on May 24, the “World Day of Prayer for the Church in China,” with the aim of helping “promote dialogue between the Church in China and the universal Church, and between China and the Holy See.” He told America that “the article is my own view” and is the result of his reflection on his 36 years of research on China and on the recent developments in the Sino-Vatican relations.

On reading the article, one gets the impression that the cardinal is not only defending the Holy See’s dialogue with China but is also preparing Catholics inside and outside China for an accord that appears to be on the horizon. The article is sure to spark discussion.

The Chinese and English texts of the cardinal's reflection on Holy See-mainland relations will be published in the Hong Kong diocesan weeklies Kung Kao Po and Sunday Examiner but are avaiable now at the website of Holy Spirit Study Centre.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
1 year 9 months ago
It would be nice if the Church had more freedom. What's most important with respect to China is the freedom of individual Catholic's, men and women to spread the Gospel freely outside of the Church buildings proper. To have confessional Catholic Schools like the old days. Don't know if that subject has been discussed? Our Lady Queen of China, pray for us!

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