Pope Francis is facing a complex row over the Vatican’s warming ties with Communist China, which have sparked a new war of words with a Hong Kong cardinal and growing bitterness among some Chinese faithful.
Beijing and the Vatican severed diplomatic relations in 1951, and although ties have improved in recent years as China’s Catholic population has grown, they remain at odds over which side has the authority to ordain bishops.
The Vatican relaunched long-stalled negotiations three years ago and now seems to be nearing concrete steps towards solving the major stumbling bloc of how to designate bishops.
But the issue has flared up again after two underground Chinese bishops, recognised by the pope, were asked by a top Vatican diplomat to resign in favour of state-sanctioned prelates, including one who was ex-communicated by the Vatican in 2011.
The news was first reported in January by the Vatican-linked AsiaNews website and since confirmed by Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of semi-autonomous HongKong, who is a staunch opponent of any rapprochement between the Vatican and Beijing.
“Do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, definitely,” Zen said in an open letter on Monday, adding that the Communist government had introduced “harsher regulations limiting religious freedom”.
The Vatican’s number two, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, did not deny the disagreement in a post on the Vatican Insider website, but said that the Hong Kong rebel was only expressing a “personal point of view” and was in no way a spokesman for Chinese Catholics.
Zen said he had appealed to the pope in a private meeting earlier this month in Rome, where he delivered a letter from one of the bishops who was asked to step aside, Peter Zhuang Jianjian.
The cardinal also indicated in his statement that the pope, who has sought to improve ties with China, was not in agreement with his mediator in Beijing — a claim which prompted a terse denial from the Vatican.
For Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, “there does not exist two churches in China, but two communities of the faithful calling for a gradual path towards reconciliation and unity”.
China’s roughly 12 million Catholics are divided between a government-run association, whose clergy are chosen by the Communist Party, and an unofficial church which swears allegiance to the Vatican.
The secretive negotiations between the two sides could come down to the Vatican recognising some of the bishops chosen by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association in exchange for a more benevolent attitude from Beijing.
The last word on nominations for future bishops could be given to the pope, following the suggestion of the China’s underground Catholic authorities.
Parolin hopes that it will be possible to “abolish” the distinction between “underground” and “official” churches, which he warned would require certain “sacrifices” by some.
“The Church does not forget the sufferings past and present of all Chinese Catholics,” he said, calling for everyone to work towards “building a more peaceful future”.
Anger among the faithful
Reactions from the faithful at underground Chinese churches, published last week by AsiaNews, included both sorrow and anger.
“I have nothing left to do but become a farmer,” said one priest.
At the heart of the drama is Chinese bishop Zhuang, who has been ordained by the Vatican.
The 88-year-old has twice been asked to leave his post in China’s southeast in favour of bishop Joseph Huang Bingzhang, Beijing’s nominee who was excommunicated by the Vatican in 2011.
Another Chinese prelate, aged 70, who was imprisoned in 2017, according to AsiaNews will be relegated to number two in his diocese to allow another Chinese regime pick to take the position.
Progress appears elusive, with staunch opponents to normalising diplomatic ties on both sides.
In a positive development, the Forbidden City and the Vatican Museums are organising joint art exhibitions.
But bishop Peter Shao Zhumin was detained without charge by Chinese authorities for seven months — despite the “serious concerns” voiced by the Vatican last summer — before being freed on January 3.