Making sense of the China-Vatican agreement on the selection of bishops

Bishops, priests, sisters, and lay faithful in China have said to me time and again, “All I wish is that the Holy Father can someday visit us here in China.”

Several days ago I received an email from the Wall Street Journal asking my opinion of the reported accord about to take place between Pope Francis and Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and the President of the People’s Republic of China. Several weeks earlier, a Jesuit friend asking about my thoughts on this imminent agreement phoned me. Interest is high, and for understandable reasons. I would like to offer some reflections here, especially since this rumored accord is receiving a significant amount of media attention, and I’m not confident that the voice of Chinese Catholics in the pews is being sufficiently represented. 

There is an old Chinese saying that “what is whispered in one man’s ear is often heard a hundred miles away,” and what is heard a hundred miles away is more often different than what was originally said. There is no way of knowing precisely what is being negotiated between Vatican City and Beijing, but rumors of a Sino-Vatican agreement have already caused a stir on both sides of the Eurasian continent.

In short, negotiations are underway between the Holy See and the authorities in Beijing to make an agreement regarding how Chinese bishops will be selected, approved, and consecrated in China. Beijing has asked the Pope to recognize eight bishops who were ordained without Vatican approval, and who are still not officially in communion with the Bishop of Rome; three of these bishops are presently excommunicated. If the Pope agrees to this condition, the process for electing bishops would include first, the selection of priest candidates by China’s Religious Affairs authorities; second, the Vatican’s approval of candidates; and third, the consecration and installation of these bishops into Chinese dioceses. Such an agreement, while somewhat different from how bishops are selected in most countries, would mark the first tangible sign of rapprochement between China and the Vatican since China severed ties with the Holy See and began to expel missionaries in 1949. Resumed talks between the Vatican and China’s authorities started in 2014, and underwent at least four rounds of negotiations.catholics leaving mass at beijing’s cathedral, south church. (photo by anthony e. clark)
Among the topics undoubtedly looming in the background of these talks is the so-called “Vietnam Model.” Vietnam, like China, is a Communist country with a thriving Catholic Christian community. According to this model, which is in place but still unofficial, the selection of a bishop in Vietnam undergoes four stages: 1) the Vietnamese authorities select a number of priest candidates that the state supports; 2) the Vatican recommends one of the state-selected candidates for ordination; 3) Vietnam’s authorities either confirm or reject the Vatican’s selection; and 4) the Pope officially appoints the candidate to the episcopacy. 

Whether or not this model will become the template for the possible Vatican-China agreement, it has been, more-or-less, a successful model for the election of bishops in Vietnam. There are pressing reasons why the issue of selecting bishops is being discussed. China now has 97 dioceses, and many do not have bishops, or have a bishop who is well beyond the normal age of retirement, which is 75 years old. Under the current circumstances, China is suffering from a severe shortage of bishops who can confer sacraments such as the ordination of priests or bishops.

This bishop shortage is complicated because China’s Catholic Church is presently divided into the so-called “underground” and “aboveground” communities, each having bishops, some occupying the same jurisdiction. In 2008, I met with an “underground” bishop, Hu Daguo, who lived in the same residence as the “aboveground” bishop, Wang Chongyi—and both men collaborated together to improve the spiritual wellbeing of their diocese. Such cooperation is not uncommon in China, but “underground” and “aboveground” bishops in some areas remain in open conflict, especially in dioceses where the Church has suffered particularly intense persecutions since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. In these areas, “aboveground” bishops are viewed as “traitors” who have abandoned open loyalty to the Pope in Rome.

In 1981, the “underground” bishop, Fan Xueyan, ordained a priest and three bishops without Vatican approval based on his conviction that the Church in China was in grave danger, and that the situation required more bishops in this a state of emergency. Pope St. John Paul II not only approved of Bishop Fan’s surreptitious consecration of bishops, but also granted him permission to continue making such decisions without first seeking the approval of the Holy See. Bishop Fan, along with the bishops he had consecrated, ordained more than eighty Roman Catholic bishops in China in this state of emergency. Bishop Fan was imprisoned by the Chinese authorities, and his death in 1992 is believed by most Chinese Catholics to have been precipitated by mistreatment by the state. 

It is the memory of bishops such as Fan Xueyan that render many Chinese Catholics suspicious of a possible accord between the Chinese government and the Vatican. But the situation is changing in China, and since many “underground” and “aboveground” bishops are now in collaboration, a Vatican accord with China might seem less like a betrayal of those Chinese faithful who have suffered to retain their loyalty to the Holy See. Some of the media reports I now see online appear to praise the present negotiations as a positive development in Sino-Vatican relations, while others decry it as a callous infidelity to those Chinese Catholics who have resisted China’s Communist authorities and have avoided any relations with a government that has so cruelly treated Catholics in the past.

Hardliners on both sides of this debate will, no doubt, remain vocal. However, I have lived in China, sitting beside Chinese Catholics who mostly desire little more than normalization between the Chinese government and the Pope in Rome. Bishops, priests, sisters, and lay faithful have said to me time and again, “All I wish is that the Holy Father can someday visit us here in China.” In August I wrote a CWR article, “China and Vatican Make Preliminary Agreement on the Election of Bishops,” in which I discussed the views of Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen and Cardinal John Tong Hon. In effect, both Cardinals were, and remain, tentative about how these negotiations might be received in China if an agreement is formally made.

The Chinese Benedictine monk, Brother Peter Zhou Bangjiu, OSB, was imprisoned by Communist officials in 1955, and he endured appalling torments while in Chinese prisons and labor camps, simply because he was a Catholic monk who refused to deny his loyalty to the Pope. He wrote a poem to commemorate his departure from China after his release:

Departure, my Motherland
The sky of my country has changed over these thirty-five winters,
Rancorous wind and rain have exposed a green pine.
At Yang Pass – a sad parting – I intone a tune that crushes my heart,
Oh Father of Heaven, when will you descend upon the Red Dragon?

Brother Zhou’s mention of Yang Pass alludes to a Chinese area associated with bitter farewells, and the “Red Dragon” is his native country. This poem serves to underscore two common themes among Chinese Catholics; they feel an abiding love for their country, and they share an enduring desire for God, and his representative on earth, to visit their homeland. The current negotiations remain largely veiled in secrecy, but one thing is certain: most of the Catholics I know in China are praying now that whatever accord is made between Beijing and Rome, they will bring China one step closer to being more like other countries, closer to seeing the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ, walk among them in China, and with Chinese bishops who are all in a normalized relationship with the successor of the Apostle, St. Peter.

Beijing’s Catholic bishop, Li Shan, during an outdoor Mass. (Photo by Anthony E. Clark)

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About Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 54 Articles
Anthony E. Clark is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University and the author of China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911. He is also the host of the EWTN television series The Saints of China: Martyrs of the Middle Kingdom.