‘Cautious optimism’ over Sino-Vatican ties as Catholic Congress opens in Beijing

By Shan Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/28 0:23:39

9th Catholic Congress opens in Beijing

The Ninth National Congress of the Chinese Catholic Representatives opened in Beijing Tuesday after events in 2016 pointed toward a relaxation in relations between Beijing and the Vatican, although observers urged patience and cautious optimism over the prospect of improved ties in the short-term.

The conference, held six years after the last congress, was participated by 365 Catholic representatives from 31 provincial-level regions around China.

Also present at the meeting were officials from the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), as well as individuals from other religious organizations.

Bishop Fang Xingyao, chairman of the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) and Bishop Ma Yinglin, head of the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC) both submitted work reports for the last six years.

SARA director Wang Zuoan said during the conference that the Chinese government's position in improving ties with the Vatican has been long-standing and consistent. China hopes the Vatican can adopt a more flexible and pragmatic attitude and create opportunities to improve ties, he said.

Wang also noted that the CCPA and BCCCC should lead Catholic personnel and followers in line with the CPC Central Committee with Chinese President Xi Jinping as the core.

Bishop Ma said that the CCPA and BCCCC would continue the direction of "Sinicization of Chinese Catholic Church" in the next five years, consolidate existing achievements of independence and self-governance and continue on the road of socialism.

The congress, which runs until Thursday, is due to pass amendments to the charters of the CCPA and BCCCC and elect the ninth committee for the two organizations and congress leaders.

Make new headway

The congress came a week after Vatican spokesman Greg Burke's statement on December 19, in which he said that "all Catholics in China wait with trepidation for positive signs, which help them to have confidence in the dialogue between civil authorities and the Holy See and to hope in a future of unity and harmony," the Catholic News Agency reported.

"China is willing to work alongside the Vatican to make new headway in conducting bilateral constructive dialogues and improving bilateral relations," Hua noted.

The eighth congress was held in 2010. The Vatican had condemned previous conferences because it does not recognize the BCCCC and claims that it is inconsistent with Catholic doctrine. But this time the Holy See has given tacit approval for members of the so-called "underground" church and bishops, referring to those not recognized by the Chinese government, to attend, according to Catholic websites familiar with religious affairs in China, AFP reported Monday.

"The fact that the Vatican has not told Chinese bishops to abstain themselves from or protest about the congress is already a slightly positive change," Yan Kejia, director of the Institute of Religious Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.

Compared with the eighth congress, which ordered Chinese Catholic practitioners to "resolutely resist the penetration, interference and destruction of foreign powers," the official tone at Tuesday's conference was softer.

Francesco Sisci, senior researcher at the Center of European Studies at the Renmin University of China, said Tuesday that the absence of such an instruction is an indirect admission by China of the role of the pope in Chinese Catholic Church.

"It's still too early to say that the congress would certainly send some 'signals' or promote a solution to Sino-Vatican issues, as we don't yet know the substance of the congress," Wang Meixiu, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.

The conference is more about the development of Chinese Catholics and is not necessarily related to Sino-Vatican relations, Yan said.

Patient approach

The Vatican Insider reported on December 20 that the Holy See was taking a wait-and-see approach before making a judgment on the congress.

"For the Holy See, the bishops' conference, the national congress of Chinese Catholics and the CCPA are all issues that need to be negotiated, but for China, those are not issues at all," Wang noted, adding that the problems of the past 60 years cannot be solved in just a few years.

China and the Vatican severed diplomatic relations in 1951, although Pope Francis has tried to improve relations with Beijing in the hope of reconnecting with Catholics in China. Chinese and Vatican officials have met at least four times since January over the issue of the appointment of bishops, AFP reported.

The Catholic Church in China is divided into two communities. The CCPA leads the open church of around 5.5 million members and appoints its own bishops without the approval of the pope, only the government. The "underground" community, which some experts think has more members than the CCPA, swears allegiance solely to the pope but is considered illegal by the government.

Newspaper headline: ‘Cautious optimism’ over Sino-Vatican ties


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