ROME — Improved Holy See relations with China are a major effort of this papacy, with an ongoing focus on disputed appointments of bishops and diplomatic recognition of neighboring Taiwan.
But environmental issues may be the back way to a better future.
The Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace organized a Sept. 28 consultation on Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on care for creation, “Laudato Si,” and the upcoming United Nations Climate Change conference known as COP22.
Delegations came from all over the world to the Vatican event, including one from China. Pope Francis made an appearance and praised the work on “such a hot issue,” one attendee told CNA. He warmly greeted all the delegations, including the Chinese one.
Pope Francis’s greeting to a Chinese delegation – albeit not a governmental one – may be meaningful, and some observers considered it another tipoff about the diplomatic work the Holy See is carrying forward to thaw relations between China and itself.
The meeting had been scheduled some time ago, and prepared in secret so that the Pope could speak to China in an informal context.
For its part, the Holy See is attentively looking at the development and implementation of the previous U.N. agreement on climate change. The guidelines of the Holy See’s commitment on environmental issues were given in the Pope’s encyclical “Laudato Si.”
The climate change debate has been identified by Holy See diplomats as one of many tools to establish relations with difficult states. Climate change is a hot issue, but it does not involve more complex issues like religious freedom.
This may be the reason why the Pontifical Academy for Sciences and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace invited officials of the China-based Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation to the joint consultation.
The Chinese foundation was founded in 1985. Its founder, Lu Zhengcao, was one of the leading generals of the People Revolution’s Army in the crucial years of the Communist expansion through China.
Ever since the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, the Holy See has had a reduced diplomatic presence in Beijing. The nunciature was moved to Taiwan in 1951.
China-Vatican relations have been cool, with some apparent thaws. Benedict XVI wrote a letter to Catholics in China in 2007, after which followed a series of bishops’ appointments approved both by the Chinese government and the Holy See. Now, Holy See authorities are working to formalize an agreement for the appointment of bishops with China.
The Church in China is in a difficult situation. The government of the Chinese People’s Republic never recognized the Holy See’s authority to appoint bishops. Instead, it established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a sort of ecclesiastical hierarchy officially recognized by the Chinese authorities.
For this reason, Chinese bishops recognized by the Holy See entered a clandestine state, thus giving life to the so-called “underground Church” that is not recognized by the government.
After difficult years, the Holy See and Beijing may have reached an agreement. Under the reputed plan, a set of three possible bishops will be presented by the Chinese Bishops’ Conference to the Pope, who has the final decision and even the possibility of vetoing candidates. The Chinese Bishops’ Conference can also seek some external opinion in their choice of bishop candidates, including the government’s opinion.
The Chinese Bishops’ Conference itself is a fictitious institution, composed by members of the government-backed Patriotic Association. In the end, the agreement might be seen as a possibility for the Chinese government to present candidates they like to the Vatican.
The possible plan is not without critics.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Zekiung, archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong, disapproved of such an agreement. In a long open letter, he lamented that nothing would change in terms of religious freedom in China. He expressed his concern that this path would be a return of the “Ostpolitik,” the Cold War policy put into action under Pope Paul VI by the Holy See.
The Vatican made reciprocal concessions with countries on the other side of Europe’s Iron Curtain in order to guarantee a peaceful life to Christians in the countries under Soviet communist domination.
Cardinal John Tong Hon, Zen’s successor as Archbishop of Hong Kong, responded. He specified that final choice on a bishop’s appointment was always the pope’s. He highlighted the fact that papal nuncios themselves can seek opinions from external lay people when they are examining candidates for the episcopate.
According to the veteran Vatican watcher Sandro Magister, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin has confirmed that negotiations are in an advanced stage. The cardinal confirmed this to the apostolic nuncios who were in Rome Sept. 16-18 to celebrate their jubilee.
Parolin reportedly explained that the dialogue with China only concerns the appointment of bishops, and does not deal with the possibility of re-establishing diplomatic ties.
Though time is needed for renewed diplomatic ties, the Holy See has silently showed its goodwill in not yet appointing a high level representative to lead the nunciature to China in Taiwan. The post has been vacant since the last chargée d’affairs, Monsignor Paul Fitzpatrick Russell, was named nuncio to Turkey and Turkmenistan in March 2016.
On the one hand, the Holy See has no wish to break ties with Taiwan, which is the condition mainland China requires in order to open a diplomatic dialogue with the Holy See. To mainland China, Taiwan is no more than a rebel province.
Taiwan too is an actor in the diplomatic scene. Its vice president Chen Chien-jen had a private meeting with Pope Francis Sept. 4, after Mother Teresa’s canonization.
On the other hand, the Holy See wants to close the dispute about bishops. According to Magister, Parolin explained that Monsignor Antoine Camilleri and Monsignor Tadeusz Wojda, respectively Vatican vice-minister for foreign affairs and the number three official of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, are employed in the dialogue. Even China is employing mid-rank officials for the task.
Will these talks be enough to heal the wound between the so-called “Official Church” and the “underground Church”?
According to the Vatican Year Book, there are 30 underground bishops out of 100 bishops in China. The other 70 bishops were either illegitimately ordained and later reconciled with Rome or were ordained with the twofold approval of Rome and Beijing.
There are another eight Bishops whose ordination is not recognized by Rome, and for this reason they are also excommunicated. This situation is particularly tricky.
Evidence that the Holy See is not keen for concessions on this point is shown in its behavior after the recent death of Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang of Whenzou. Whenzou is the city where crosses were torn down after an order by Chinese officials, who targeted both unofficial house churches and government-approved churches starting in 2014.
Zhu was one of the first to take to the streets to protest against the decision. He could publicly show his discontent because he enjoyed a huge popular backing. Whenzou has 100,000 residents who are members of the government-recognized Catholic Patriotic Association churches and another 50,000 Catholics from the “underground Church.”
The Holy See took into account this strong showing of the underground Church.
Zhu endured forced labor for 23 years before he was ordained a bishop in 2009. He was later recognized by the government in 2010. After Zhu had been recognized by the Chinese government, the Holy See appointed Peter Shao Zhumin, part of the underground Church, as coadjutor Bishop of Whenzhou with the right of succession.
Shao was taken into custody by the Chinese authorities. The priest Ma Xianshi was appointed by the Chinese government as the leader of the official Church in the Diocese of Wenzhou – a move that identified the priest as the government’s preferred candidate to succeed Zhu.
Recently, the Chinese government issued a new draft of a regulation for religious activities in China. The new draft would impose stricter penalties against “illegal religious activities” depending “on a foreign country,” which is how the Catholic Church is classified in China.
These are the most important hurdles the Holy See faces in establishing new relations with China. Because of these hurdles, Holy See diplomacy is working step by step: the first step is to solve the issue of bishops’ appointments, then tackle diplomatic relations later, when the situation has settled down.