ROME — Amid reports of a possible agreement concerning the appointment of Chinese bishops, it is useful to look at the Church’s relations with Vietnam as a possible model for the development of relations between China and the Holy See.
The agreement will likely be based on a model implemented in Vietnam back in 1996 by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, today the pope’s Secretary of State: the Holy See proposes a set of three bishops to the Hanoi government, and Hanoi makes its choice.
This way has some problems. The Vietnam administration often delays its approval, leaving dioceses vacant for years. Then, when they make the choice, they usually prefer a pro-government candidate.
Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, told nuncios gathered in Rome Sept. 16-18 that the talks with China deal with the appointment of bishops, and do not deal with any possibility of establishing diplomatic ties.
His remarks are the signal that the Holy See is putting into action a step by step approach in relations with China.
Holy See policy with China has become a major focus of discussion.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong, has criticized the possible agreement about the appointment of bishops. He has remarked in an open letter in August, and in other interventions, that the agreement would change nothing in terms of religious freedom in China. For him, that is the main problem.
He also expressed concern that the agreement would harm the situation of all the Catholics in China who went underground to defend the Holy See’s independence to appoint bishops. They have always been faithful to the Church. But in his view, a possible agreement on government involvement in bishops appointments would mean their effort to preserve the Church’s autonomy has been useless.
Cardinal John Tong, who is Cardinal Zen’s successor as Archbishop of Hong Kong, insisted that the final choice on a bishop’s appointment will always be the pope’s.
“When the Pope freely appoints bishops,” Tong wrote Aug. 4, “he will seek the opinion of people within the Church and choose the most suitable person from a list of candidates.”
The cardinal stressed that many people are to be consulted on bishops’ appointments: bishops of neighboring dioceses, the national bishops’ conference, the current or previous bishop of the diocese, and the pontifical legate. Nuncios also seek the opinion of the local Church, including lay people with “outstanding wisdom.”
For Tong, these principles “may be adjusted according to what is feasible in the local situation.”
The Archbishop of Hong Kong himself mentioned the “Vietnam model” which the Holy See tailored to suit the situation of the Vietnamese Church.
Concerning bishops’ appointments in China, he said the apostolic see has “the right to set up special provisions to target the specific circumstances faced by the Church in China.”
“This does not violate the principles of faith nor destroy the communion and unity of the Church,” he said.
An agreement on appointment of bishops could pave the way to establish a China-Holy See joint committee and start bilateral meetings.
Parolin has long advocated for the Vietnam model. In 2005 he told U.S. diplomats that the appointment of bishops in China should not be “a major problem,” citing the Holy See’s modus vivendi with Vietnam.
The Vietnam model is “not ideal, but it is a way to take a step forward and increase our engagement,” he said, according to a May 18, 2005 U.S. State Department cable from the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See that was leaked and published on Wikileaks.
The future cardinal was then serving in the Vatican foreign ministry as Undersecretary for Relations with States.
This approach to Vietnam was dropped under Benedict XVI’s pontificate but revived when Parolin was appointed Secretariat of State under Pope Francis.
Like China, Vietnam lacks formal diplomatic ties to the Vatican. In 2011 it accepted a “non-resident representative” of the Holy See. However, this position itself implies a diplomatic role.
Vietnam is engaged in bilateral meetings with the Holy See. The sixth of these meetings took place Oct. 24-26 at the Vatican. The center of discussions was the recent reform of the religious freedom bill in Vietnam.
Vietnam’s representatives underscored the efforts made to improve a religious freedom bill, while the Holy See showed appreciation for these efforts and reiterated the Church’s freedom to carry forward its mission.
The issue of religious freedom has always been crucial in the Vietnam-Holy See relations, as it has been for China.
Vietnam’s religious freedom law has been under discussion since 2013, when the Vietnamese constitution was revised. The law guaranteed freedom of belief to people, and formally guarantees religious freedom.
However, Catholic communities have experienced several limitations under the communist regime that took power in 1976.
At the same time, Vietnam cares very much about relations with the Vatican. Six million of its 89 million people are Catholic, though the population is predominantly Buddhist.
According to Eglise d’Asie, a news agency run by the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris, the revision of the law on religious freedom would simplify the procedures to allow religious activities. A whole section of the new law concerns the state’s responsibility to guarantee religious freedom.
The new law would establish for the first time freedom of belief for foreign residents in Vietnam, who might have the right to exercise religious activities and to study in religious institutions.
Not by chance, following the Oct. 24-26 meetings between Vietnam and the Holy See, the delegations stressed mutual agreement that the Catholic Church in Vietnam will continue to be inspired by the magisterium of the Church regarding the practice of “living the gospel in the nation” and being, at the same time, “good Catholics and good citizens.”
The sentence was aimed to show that the Holy See was not interested in any conspiracy or plot against the government, but merely in guaranteeing freedom and rights to the Catholic community.