Improved Holy See relations with China are a major effort of this papacy, with an ongoing focus on disputes appointment of bishops and diplomatic recognition of neighboring Taiwan.
But environmental issues may be the roundabout 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' 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 and warmly
greeted all the delegations, including the Chinese one.
Pope Francis' 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 the Holy See.
The meeting had been scheduled long 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 diplomacy 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
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
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
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, included the government’s opinion.
As a matter of fact, 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, Cardinal Zen's successor as Archbishop of Hong
Kong, responded to Cardinal Zen. 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 in Rome Sept. 16-18 to celebrate their
Cardinal 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, Msgr. 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, Cardinal Parolin explained that Msgr.
Antoine Camilleri and Msgr. 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
ven 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 were crosses were torn down
after an order of Chinese officials, who targeted both unofficial house
churches and government-approved churches starting in 2014.
Bishop Zhu was one of the first to take 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.
Bishop 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 Bishop 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.
Bishop 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
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.