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Gerard O’ConnellJuly 17, 2023
In this file photo, China's flag is seen as Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican June 15, 2016. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Why has Pope Francis decided to recognize a bishop installed by Chinese authorities—in violation of the historic Sino-Vatican agreement—more than three months after he was appointed to China’s largest diocese?

On July 15, the Vatican broke the news of the papal recognition of Bishop Joseph Shen Bin, whom Chinese authorities transferred from the Haimen diocese to the Diocese of Shanghai in April. At the same time, Vatican Media published an interview with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s secretary of state, that not only explained the reasons for this late recognition but also expressed the Vatican’s increasing discontent at the way the Chinese authorities are acting after the two sides signed the provisional agreement on the nomination of bishops in Beijing on Sept. 22, 2018. Looking to the future, the cardinal highlighted some of the major problems the Holy See wants to resolve with China if the Sino-Vatican dialogue is to make progress.

The announcement comes six days after Pope Francis said he would make Hong Kong’s bishop, Stephen Chow, S.J., a cardinal.

Many Catholics in Shanghai had reacted negatively to Bishop Shen Bin’s appointment and installation on April 4 without the pope’s approval. It remains to be seen if their attitude will change now that Francis has recognized him.

[Podcast: China breaches Vatican agreement on appointment of bishops]

Bishop Shen Bin was ordained priest on Nov. 1, 1996, and served in parishes and as vicar general in the Diocese of Haimen in Jiangsu Province until he was made the bishop of that diocese in 2010, with the consent of Rome and Beijing. The Vatican noted in its announcement that since 2022, Msgr. Shen Bin has been president of the Council of Chinese Bishops.

Cardinal Parolin’s interview with Vatican Media is both unusual and important. Unusual because, as America has learned, the cardinal sent a written text, consisting of five questions and answers, to the Vatican news outlet; it was a carefully drafted text within the Secretariat of State, and so carries considerable weight. It is important not only because it provides a credible rationale for the pope’s decision but also makes clear to Beijing the issues it wants addressed in real time if the Chinese side is intent on continuing a sincere and serious dialogue.

Why has Pope Francis decided to recognize a bishop installed by Chinese authorities more than three months after he was appointed to China’s largest diocese?

He began by providing the context for the pope’s decision. He recalled that one month after China and the Vatican renewed the provisional agreement for the second time on Oct. 22, 2022, Beijing unilaterally appointed Peng Weizhao as auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Jiangxi, a diocese not recognized by Rome, without either consulting or informing the Vatican. (Beijing and Rome do not agree on the number of dioceses, and this is one of many problems to be resolved.)

Although the cardinal did not mention it, the Vatican reacted unusually strongly to that unilateral action on Nov. 24, 2022, charging that China had breached the agreement. Some days later, however, on Nov. 29, the Associated Press reported that a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, when asked about this, told reporters in Beijing, “China is willing to continuously expand the friendly consensus with the Vatican side and jointly maintain the spirit of our interim agreement.”

Five months later, however, China broke the agreement for a second time, notwithstanding the foreign ministry’s assurances. Sources consulted by America suggest that this reveals that the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, not the foreign ministry, may be obstructing the improvement in Sino-Vatican relations.

Referring to this second breach of the agreement, the unilateral transfer of Bishop Shen Bin to Shanghai, Cardinal Parolin said, “The Holy See was informed of the provision adopted by the Chinese authorities to transfer Mgr. Joseph Shen Bin, bishop of Haimen, but, yet again, it was not involved.”

“The Holy See was informed of the provision adopted by the Chinese authorities to transfer Mgr. Joseph Shen Bin, bishop of Haimen, but, yet again, it was not involved.”

He said the Vatican took some time—three months—before “commenting publicly on the case.” Cardinal Parolin did not say if it had protested privately to Beijing. He attributed the delay to “the need to evaluate attentively” two aspects. First, “the pastoral situation of the Shanghai diocese that is recognized by the Holy See and which for too long was without a bishop.” This was a reference to the fact that Shanghai has been without a pastor since the Jesuit bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian died on April 27, 2013. Second, “the opportuneness” or “appropriateness” (“l’opportunità”) of transferring Msgr. Shen Bin to Shanghai. Significantly, he described the bishop as “an esteemed pastor.”

Highlighting the fact that the transfers of the two bishops “were carried out without the involvement of the Holy See,” Cardinal Parolin said, “this way of proceeding appears not to take account of the spirit of dialogue and of collaboration established by the Vatican party [side] and the Chinese party [side] over the years and which found a point of reference in the Agreement.”

Notwithstanding this, he said, Pope Francis “decided to heal the canonical irregularity created in Shanghai, with a view to the greater good of the diocese and of the fruitful exercise of the pastoral ministry of the bishop.” He added, “The intention of the Holy Father is fundamentally pastoral and will permit Msgr. Shen Bin to operate with greater serenity to promote evangelization and foster ecclesial communion.”

Although Cardinal Parolin did not mention it, informed sources told America that the pope’s decision may also have been influenced by positive communications with Bishop Shen Bin since his installation in Shanghai.

Cardinal Parolin said the Vatican took some time—three months—before “commenting publicly on the case.” Cardinal Parolin did not say if it had protested privately to Beijing.

The cardinal said the Holy See hopes this papal gesture “may, in agreement with the [Chinese] Authorities, favor a just and wise solution” to some long-standing unresolved questions in the diocese. He mentioned two: the situation of the auxiliary bishops of Shanghai, Msgr. Thaddeus Ma Daqin and Msgr. Joseph Xing Wenzhi. Bishop Ma was detained for renouncing his membership of the Catholic Patriotic Association on July 7, 2012, the day of his ordination by Bishop Jin Luxian, and has been under house arrest since. Bishop Xing Wenzhi was also ordained by Bishop Jin Luxian on June 28, 2005, and was regarded as his successor, but he withdrew from pastoral ministry in December 2011 under circumstances that are still not clear.

Cardinal Parolin’s public reference to the two auxiliary bishops is significant, as the Vatican has not hitherto publicly called on the Chinese authorities to find appropriate solutions to their situations. It remains to be seen if Beijing will respond positively after the pope’s decision.

Asked whether the provisional agreement, which has never been made public, envisaged situations like the two cases whereby Beijing acted unilaterally, Cardinal Parolin began by explaining that “[t]he text is confidential because it has not yet been approved in a definitive way.” He said that “it revolves around the fundamental principle of the consensuality of decisions regarding bishops.” In other words, it requires reaching consensus between Rome and Beijing in decisions regarding bishops.

The cardinal said if “new and unexpected” situations were to arise, then the Vatican and China should “try to resolve them in good faith and in a farsighted way, re-reading better what is written and drawing inspiration from the principles that guided the drafting [of the agreement].”

“We are therefore trying to clarify this point, in an open dialogue and in a respectful confrontation with the Chinese party,” he said. “Trusting in the wisdom and good will of all, we hope to arrive at positive conclusions, [that will be] useful for continuing the journey, [and] overcoming every difficulty.”

Informed sources told America that the interpretation of the text could give rise to problems because the original text has an Italian and a Chinese version, and each side might read it differently.

In this context, it is worth mentioning that before the provisional agreement was signed, informed sources told America that the interpretation of the text could give rise to problems because the original text has an Italian and a Chinese version, and each side might read it differently. It seems to be the case that by “nomination of bishops” China chooses to read it as meaning the first nomination, not the transfer, whereas the Vatican understands it to include both.

Responding to the question of whether he thought China would repeat its unilateral actions, and why the consensual decisions are so important in the nomination of bishops, Cardinal Parolin made clear that “the Holy See is not contrary to the transfer of bishops in China” but said “the problem arises whenever one proceeds in a non-consensual manner.” He emphasized that “the correct application of the Agreement permits the avoidance of such difficulties.”

“It is important,” he said, even “indispensable…that all the episcopal nominations in China, including transfers, are made consensually, as agreed [in the provisional agreement], and keeping alive the spirit of dialogue between the parties.”

Cardinal Parolin told the Chinese authorities, “We must together avoid disharmonious situations that create disagreements and misunderstandings also within the Catholic communities” and said, “the good application of the Agreement is one of the ways to do this, together with a sincere dialogue.”

The cardinal, an accomplished diplomat, refrained from saying how the Vatican would respond if Beijing were to repeat its unilateral action in transferring bishops or in relation to the nomination of bishops, but an informed source told America that could provoke a serious crisis in Sino-Vatican relations.

As secretary of state, Cardinal Parolin is the pope’s right-hand man and his chief advisor in relations with China. In the last part of the interview, he identified three important matters, “among the many complex and open questions,” that “urgently need to be dealt with” in the Sino-Vatican dialogue: the episcopal conference, the communication of the Chinese bishops with the pope and evangelization.

Today, the state-recognized Catholic church in China has a bishops’ conference called “The Council of Chinese Bishops” that is essentially subservient to the Communist authorities, and only includes bishops who belong to the Catholic Patriotic Association, all of whom are now in union with Rome. On the other hand, no bishop of the underground church is a member of this council, even though they, too, are in union with Rome. This is one of several reasons that the Holy See does not recognize the state-sanctioned bishops’ council as a bishops’ conference.

Addressing the question of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Parolin said, “The Holy See wants to see the responsibility of the bishops grow in the leadership of the church in China,” and for this to happen, the conference needs to have “adequate Statutes for its ecclesial nature and for its pastoral mission.” In this context, he said, “it is essential that there is established regular communication of the Chinese bishops with the Bishop of Rome. This is indispensable for an effective communion” since “all this belongs to the structure and the doctrine of the Catholic church.” The cardinal recalled that “the Chinese Authorities have always said they do not wish to alter this [structure and doctrine].”

Though the cardinal did not say so, it is extremely difficult for a bishop in mainland China to visit the pope; they do not have such freedom. So far, Chinese bishops have only been allowed to attend one synod of bishops, the synod on youth in 2018. It remains to be seen if any will be allowed to participate in the synod on synodality.

In the interview, the cardinal said, “Too many suspicions slow down and obstruct the work of evangelization.”

“Chinese Catholics,” he said, “including those defined as ‘clandestine,’ merit trust, because they sincerely want to be loyal citizens and to be respected in their conscience and in their faith.” He called for the full recognition of Chinese Catholics by the authorities, including Catholics of the underground church community who account for close to 50 percent of the more than 12 million Catholic population in mainland China.

He appealed to the Chinese authorities “to overcome the diffidence to Catholicism, which is not a religion that is to be considered foreign—much less contrary—to the culture of this great people.” He said this “is necessary” in order that “the Gospel may be able to spread with its fullness of grace and of love, bearing good fruits in China and for China, and so that Jesus Christ can ‘make himself Chinese with the Chinese.’” He said he prays to the Lord every day for this intention.

“The Holy See has decided to do its part so that the journey may continue,” Cardinal Parolin said. In other words, the ball is in China’s court.

Cardinal Parolin concluded by speaking about the future of the Sino-Vatican dialogue. He acknowledged that “the obstacles placed on the way undermine trust and drain positive energies,” but at the same time said he believes “the reasons for dialogue seem to me [to be] still stronger.” The dialogue between the two sides “remains open,” he said; it “is a journey that is in some way obligatory.” It is “inevitable” that there are problems, he added, “but if the dialogue grows in truth and in mutual respect, it could be fruitful for the church and for Chinese society.”

He called on the Chinese authorities to allow the Vatican to open “a stable liaison office” in mainland China so as to facilitate this dialogue and make it “more fluid and fruitful.” Such a presence of the Holy See would not only “favor the dialogue with the civil authorities,” he said, “it could also contribute to full reconciliation within the Chinese church and to its journey to a desirable normality.”

The cardinal’s request is not new. America has learned that the Vatican has proposed this on several occasions in bilateral meetings with the Chinese delegations, but Beijing has so far not been willing to permit this. On the contrary, sources say it has wanted the Holy See to close its study office in Hong Kong, something the Vatican would only accept to do if it could open an office in Beijing.

The last meeting of the Vatican and Chinese delegations took place in Tianjin, 85 miles southeast of Beijing, Aug. 28 through Sept. 2, 2022. The next meeting is due to be held in Rome, but the Chinese side seems reluctant to fix a date, even though such a meeting could help begin to address the many problems that exist.

In the interview, Cardinal Parolin again reminded the Chinese authorities the Catholic Church’s service is “inspired by the Gospel and not for economic-political interests” and contributes to the “human, spiritual and material progress” of peoples. He expressed the Holy See’s conviction that “the Catholic Church still has much to give to China, and that China has much to give to the Catholic Church.”

He concluded by telling the Chinese authorities that the agreement the two sides signed in 2018 “can be defined as historic,” but he insisted that “it needs to be fully implemented and in the most correct manner possible.” For this to happen, he said, “we need the good will, consensus, and collaboration that allowed us to stipulate this far-sighted [forward-looking] accord.” He assured Beijing, “The Holy See has decided to do its part so that the journey may continue.” In other words, the ball is in China’s court.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that the last meeting between Vatican and Chinese delegations took place in Xinjiang. The meeting was is Tianjin.

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