Are the Holy See and China close to reaching an agreement on the nomination of bishops? That is the question many are asking, both on the mainland and outside it, as they see the two sides continue their dialogue.
Rome and Beijing are talking, and sources say the key issue at the heart of their conversations is the nomination of bishops in China.
We know that since Francis became pope on March 13, 2013, delegations from Beijing and the Vatican have met on at least three occasions, and presumably there are ongoing contacts. The first meeting took place in the Vatican on June 27-28, 2014. The second was held in Beijing on Oct. 11 to 16, 2015. The most recent one was hosted in the Vatican on Jan. 25-26 of this year. These talks, conducted by midlevel officials, are shrouded in secrecy. It is worth noting, however, that the closeness of the last two meetings, plus the meeting by a lower-level working group in late April, suggests a speed-up in the process and could reflect a mutual desire to move forward without more delay. This thesis would be confirmed if another Sino-Vatican meeting were to take place before the summer holidays.
It’s important to see the question of the nomination of bishops within the wider framework of the situation of the church in China today. According to the latest statistics from the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, the most authoritative research center on the Catholic Church in China, there are between nine and 10.5 million Catholics on the mainland today. (Beijing claims over five million are members of the open or officially recognized church.)
At the end of 2015, there were 112 Catholic bishops in China (99 in active ministry, 13 not). Seventy belong to the open church and are recognized by the government, while 29 are underground and not so recognized. (Most of the 112 bishops are recognized by Rome.) Beijing redrew the ecclesiastical borders and recognizes only 97 dioceses to the Vatican’s 138.
The Holy See is under no illusion when it comes to the vexed question of the nomination of bishops. It knows that Beijing holds the upper hand, the knife in the hand, so to speak, because there are now some 40 dioceses without a pastor. If the two sides fail to reach an agreement on this central question, Beijing could, and probably would, ordain 10 to 20 bishops without papal approval. Such a move could mean that in addition to the eight illegitimate bishops already in China, there would then be 20 to 30 more. This would in fact be a schismatic church. Rome wants to avoid such a scenario and is investing much effort in the dialogue.
Right now, Rome and Beijing are divided on many issues, but informed sources say it is necessary first of all to reach agreement on the nomination of bishops; only after that will it be possible to address the other questions, some of which are easier to resolve than others. One of the easier questions involves agreement on the number of dioceses. The difficult issues include Beijing’s recognition of the underground bishops and communities, Rome’s response to the eight illegitimate bishops, the normalization of the situation of Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai, the release from prison of Bishop James Su Zhimin and the question of Taiwan.
Francis has made clear from the beginning of his pontificate, and on several occasions since, that he ardently desires to normalize relations with China not only for the good of the church, but also for peace in the world. He is prepared to go the extra mile to reach this goal, and wants to meet President Xi Jinping. He assigned the lead role in the quest for this normalization to Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, who in 2009 came close to brokering a Sino-Vatican agreement.
Not everyone is happy with this approach. According to UCA News, Cardinal Joseph Zen told a symposium in Hong Kong in mid-April that some Vatican officials believe negotiation and compromise with the Chinese government will ease the sufferings of the church in China. But he argued, “This is a mistake. Catholics in China are not afraid of suffering, but they fear the Vatican’s ambiguous attitude.” Cardinal John Tong-Hon, on the other hand, believes “dialogue brings hope” and claims there is “improvement and a better atmosphere” now.
In the midst of all this America has learned that progress is being made in the Sino-Vatican talks, both sides are drawing closer and an accord seems possible before the year’s end.