China’s underground church accused of being ‘a stumbling block’ for Sino-Vatican ties

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/29 20:33:39

Cardinal Zen says Pope aware of concerns as underground Catholic Church blames Vatican for sell-out

Latest development in China-Vatican ties prompts speculation on future of diplomatic relations

Vatican's efforts to improve ties with China face condemnation from underground church

Rome is hard pressed to find a balance between Beijing's requirements and its creed for a universal church

Government slogans are hung around Wangfujing Catholic Church in Beijing. Photo: VCG

China's "underground" church, which suffered a blow after the Vatican reportedly asked two of its bishops to step aside for Beijing-approved ones, could be a major obstacle as China-Vatican talks continue, experts say.

A Vatican delegation to China in December required bishop Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou, Guangdong Province, and Guo Xijin of Mindong, Fujian Province, to retire or be demoted to make way for Beijing-backed Huang Bingzhang and Zhan Silu, according to Asia News, an outlet of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, on January 22.

Huang, a former deputy to the National People's Congress, was "excommunicated" by the Vatican in 2011 after he was ordained without papal approval.

Since 2014, an agreement on how bishops in China will be appointed has been a key issue in the talks between China and the Vatican.

Currently, the Catholic Church in China is divided into two communities. The State-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) appoints its own bishops without the approval of the Pope, while the underground community swears allegiance solely to the Pope but is considered illegal by the Chinese government.

The Vatican's decision to replace an underground bishop with a previously excommunicated bishop has raised questions in the Catholic world over whether it has "sacrificed its principles."

Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at the Center of European Studies at the Renmin University of China and a Vatican affairs expert, said that while the Vatican's move is an important compromise and a significant sign that it wants to meet the requirements of the Chinese government, it comes at the cost of criticism from inside the church, mainly among supporters of the underground community.

"Rome must find a balance between meeting Beijing's requests and holding together the Catholic Church. The China question has the potential to rip the Church apart," he told the Global Times on Saturday.

Objectively schismatic

Vocal critics of the Vatican's decision include Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, a long-term opponent of China-Vatican talks, who believes the underground church has been ignored over the years.

The Cardinal took a special trip to the Vatican and delivered a letter to the Pope in person in January to speak on behalf of the underground church, according to, a Catholic news agency. This was corroborated by the Vatican's press office.

"If the Vatican commands [the underground church] to surrender, after years of struggle and deprivation, some will accept it; surrendering is easy," Cardinal Zen said in an interview with Italian online newspaper La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, originally in Italian.

"But there will be those who continue to oppose it and say that the Church has always held that an independent Church is objectively schismatic," he added.

In 2016, some hardliners from China's underground church, including Father Paul Dong Guanhua from Zhengding in northern Hebei Province, defied the Pope by ordaining themselves with neither papal nor governmental recognition. Dong was later removed from his position.

Yan Kejia, director of the Institute of Religious Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, believes the underground church will be one of several obstacles preventing China-Vatican relations from moving forward in the years to come.

"While the underground church appears to be faithful to the Pope, in reality it has increasingly become a stumbling block in China-Vatican relations," he told the Global Times.

Yan said that, with no easy solution to these issues, China-Vatican relations are expected to move forward slowly.

Exchanging goodwill

The China issue is not the only controversy Pope Francis has encountered in recent years. After his apostolic exhortation "Joy of Love" (Amoris Laetitia) was published in 2016, he has been criticized by conservative bishops for opening church doors to divorced and re-married Catholics receiving Communion, what they say is a deviation from traditional church teachings.

Sisci worries that the China issue will add insult to the global injuries the Vatican is already facing. "The issue is not just about the Catholic Church in China, it is about all of the universal Catholic Church," he said.

China and the Vatican have been exchanging mostly goodwill in the past two years. China's Forbidden City and the Vatican Museums are reportedly preparing to swap 40 artworks for a simultaneous exhibit this year, AFP reported. This is seen by many as a sign of improved relations.

La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit periodical directly revised by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See, has also been publishing articles calling for the church to redefine its relationship with the Communist Party of China.

In recent years, the Vatican has invited Chinese scholars to participate in international conferences on human organ transplantation and has given China credit for its progress on this matter.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun recounts meetings with Pope Francis

In a statement on his blog on Monday, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun recounts his recent meetings with Pope Francis.

After the Vatican asked Bishop Zhuang Jianjian to step aside in October, he wrote a letter to the Vatican but it was uncertain whether the letter reached the Pope. Zhuang wrote another after a Vatican delegation led by Bishop Claudio Maria Celli met him in December in Beijing.

The saddened Zhuang asked Cardinal Zen to help send the letter to Pope Francis. Zen went to Rome and met the Pope on January 10 during a papal audience. He gave the Pope Zhuang's letter, a translated version in Italian and a letter from the cardinal himself at the end of the audience when he kissed his ring. Zen was received by the Pope again on January 12.

Zen and Pope Francis talked for about half an hour and he "has successfully made the Pope realize the concerns of the faithful in China." Zen said he asked Pope Francis if he had the opportunity to deal with "those things" as he also wrote in his letter. The Pope said yes. "I've told them (high-level clergy in the Vatican) not to create another case of Mindszenty." A well-known bishop in Communist Hungary, Cardinal Mindszenty was made to vacate his position upon orders from the Vatican. The vacancy was filled by a bishop who found favor with the government after Mindszenty's death.

Zen said he is more than happy to be an obstacle to establishing ties between China and the Vatican if it is a bad deal.

Development in China-Vatican relations

March 2013 — Pope Francis sends a message to Chinese President Xi Jinping, congratulating him on being elected president of China

June 2014 — Beijing and the Holy See resume talks for first time since 2010

August 2014 — Beijing gives permission for Pope Francis to use Chinese airspace as he flies to South Korea

September 2014 — Pope Francis reportedly invites Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit the Vatican to discuss world peace

August 2015 — Bishop Zhang Yinlin, who was approved by the Vatican, ordained by the official church in China in Henan Province, a sign of relieved tension between China and the Vatican

February 2016 — Pope Francis sends New Year greetings to China

October 2016 — Pope Francis says Vatican's relations with Beijing are "good" and he has received a gift from President Xi

December 2016 — A bishop "excommunicated" by the Vatican takes part in the ordination of a new bishop in Chengdu

December 2016 — China and Vatican are reportedly "in final push" on bishop appointment. China's foreign ministry says China is "sincere about improving relations with the Vatican and have made relentless efforts to this end"

August 2017 — Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, says Pope Francis "loves China and the Chinese people and their history" during a conference on organ transplantation in China

January 2018 — Vatican criticizes China for its cloning of two monkeys, citing bioethical reasons

Source: Agencies, Global Times

Newspaper headline: Bearing the cross

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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