ROME – One month after the Vatican and China extended a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops, two recent episodes have illustrated the complicated back-and-forth relationship between the two in terms of attempts to strengthen ties.
On Nov. 23, Monsignor Thomas Chen Tianhao, 58 and widely regarded as a government loyalist, was ordained as the new bishop of Qingdao, in Shandong, making him the first bishop to be ordained according to the terms of the Vatican-China deal.
A day later, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry criticized Pope Francis for a comment he made in a new book in which he mention’s China’s Uighur Muslim population while naming minorities suffering persecution across the globe.
Set to be published Dec. 1, the book, titled, Let Us Dream, is a compilation of phone conversations with papal biographer Austen Ivereigh. In the book, Francis insisted on the need to see the world from the peripheries, places “of sin and misery, of exclusion and suffering, of illness and solitude.”
In these places, “I think often of persecuted peoples: the Rohingya, the poor Uighurs, the Yazidi – what ISIS did to them was truly cruel – or Christians in Egypt and Pakistan killed by bombs that went off while they prayed in church,” he said.
Responding to the pope’s comments, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a press briefing Tuesday that the remark had “no factual basis at all.”
“People of all ethnic groups enjoy the full rights of survival, development, and freedom of religious belief,” he said.
Notably, as of Wednesday morning, after news of Beijing’s papal criticism had already grabbed attention around the globe, that portion of Tuesday’s press briefing could not be found in the transcript posted to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website.
A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry office declined a Crux request for comment on the matter.
The criticism comes one month after the Oct. 22 renewal of a contested 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China on episcopal appointments, which has never been made public, but which is believed to allow the pope to pick from a selection of candidates put forward by the Chinese government.
Described by many experts as a down payment on eventual diplomatic relations, the deal has been praised by some as an historic step in terms of dialogue with China’s Communist regime, and criticized by others who argue that it “sells out” Catholics and members of other religions who have been persecuted by the Communist Party and turns a blind eye to human rights abuses and religious liberty violations.
Several experts, while acknowledging the merit of taking advantage of an open door to dialogue, have questioned whether, two years after signing the deal, there is anything to show for it.
In a Nov. 24 statement, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni spoke of Chen’s ordination, saying he is “the third bishop nominated and ordained” according to the framework of the deal, and that in the future ordinations “are certainly foreseen” because “various processes for new episcopal appointments are underway.”
However, observers have argued that the two bishops ordained prior to Chen were selected before the provisional agreement was made, meaning they were not selected according to the terms of the agreement and thus could not be a litmus test for the deal’s success.
Tianhao’s appointment and ordination, then, is widely seen as the first real case in which the effectiveness of the agreement can be evaluated.
There is concern among some Chinese Catholics over Chen’s close ties to the government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, as he previously served as president of the body’s Qingdao office and since 2010 has been a member of the Standing Committee of the National Patriotic Association.
Born in Pingdu, Shandong, in 1962, Chen studied at the province’s Holy Spirit Seminary and was ordained a priest in 1989. He was appointed bishop of Qingdao in November 2019, almost a year before his installation Monday.
Should other bishops continue to be appointed in China, which for years has seen an increasing number of vacant dioceses whose bishops have died without being replaced, it could restore faith in the deal and rekindle hope in the pope’s longstanding desire to unite Catholics in China, who for years have been divided into a “underground” church loyal to Rome, and an official church registered with the government.
However, human rights abuses and religious freedom would likely still be a major concern among critics.
Pope Francis thus far has been hesitant to say anything against China in terms of its treatment of religious minorities, including Catholics, as well as its attempts to clamp down on democracy in Hong Kong, which made his mention of the Uighurs in his new book so notable.
Many observers believe the pope has chosen to stay silent so as not to jeopardize the agreement on bishops, yet his comment about Uighurs could indicate a new boldness now that the deal has already been renewed for another two years.
Regardless, if these episodes show anything, it’s that while it appears that progress is being made, there still are wrinkles to iron out, and for the near future, at least, it’s likely that the Vatican and China’s one-step forward, one-step back relationship is bound to continue.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen