China and the Vatican have reached consensus on the appointment of bishops, which will lead to the resolution of other outstanding problems, Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong has said.
“From now on, there will be no more the crisis of a division between
the open and underground communities in the Church in China,” the
“On the contrary, these two communities will gradually move toward
reconciliation and communion on the aspects of law, pastoral care and
relationships. The Church in China will work together to preach the
gospel of Jesus on the soil of China.”
In a letter published on Thursday, Cardinal Tong noted that China and
the Vatican have different interests, so they will prioritise remaining
“The Chinese government is concerned with problems on the political
level, while for the Holy See, the problems are on the religious and
pastoral levels,” he said.
The Vatican and China, which severed diplomatic ties in 1951, have
had on-again, off-again talks since the 1980s. Under Pope Francis, the
two restarted a formal dialogue in 2014.
The dialogue has been examined from a political perspective, but
Cardinal Tong said he wanted to offer a religious perspective. He first
wrote of the dialogue last August and said he received much positive
In recent years, because of government requirements, the priests,
nuns and lay people of Chinese dioceses have elected their new bishops.
Most of those elected have applied to the Holy See for approval.
Cardinal Tong said the Sino-Vatican dialogue indicates that China now
will “let the Pope play a role in the nomination and ordination of
Chinese bishops.” Since, under Church law, the Pope has the final say in
the appointment of bishops, this would solve several problems, he said.
“Beijing will also recognise the Pope’s right of veto and that the
Pope is the highest and final authority in deciding on candidates for
bishops in China,” he said.
The Catholic Patriotic Association advocates the “self-nomination and
self-ordination” of bishops, but if the agreement on papal approval of
bishops is reached, that principle will become history, he said.
“If the Pope has the final word about the worthiness and suitability
of an episcopal candidate, the elections of local churches and the
recommendations of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in
China will simply be a way to express recommendations,” Cardinal Tong
The role of the government-controlled patriotic association has been
seen as a stumbling block in China-Vatican relations, but this move
would turn it into a “voluntary, non-profit, patriotic and Church-loving
organisation composed of clergy and faithful from all around the
country,” Cardinal Tong said.
China requires Catholic leaders to register with the patriotic
association, and some bishops have refused. On some levels, this has led
to so-called unofficial or underground and official or registered
communities within the Catholic Church.
But Cardinal Tong said Catholics in both communities “are actively
seeking and expressing complete communion and unity with the universal
Although some bishops were ordained without the permission of the
Pope, “they still make every effort to explain to the Pope afterwards
and ask for his understanding and acceptance,” the cardinal said. “Of
course, if all the requirements are fulfilled, they will be absolved,
accepted and probably be entrusted with the power to govern dioceses.”
The cardinal noted that seven bishops are currently “under the
condition of excommunication” because of their illegitimate
consecrations as bishops; some also have problems with moral conduct.
Cardinal Tong said Pope Francis can lift the excommunications, if
conditions permit, and the issues of moral problems would most likely be
dealt with separately.
To be pardoned, offending bishops must write to the Pope asking for
pardon and showing willingness to be in communion with the Church.
“According to reliable information, all of these seven illegitimately
ordained bishops have already sent letters to the Pope. They have
expressed their willingness to submit themselves to the Pope
unconditionally and have pleaded for forgiveness,” Cardinal Tong said.
However, the situation could be complicated if the Vatican has
already granted another bishop permission to run a diocese that an
excommunicated bishop is running. Cardinal Tong said these and other
factors might mean resolution of this issue will take more time.
Another issue that will take more dialogue is China’s recognition of
those bishops who have refused to register with the government.
Cardinal Tong said the unofficial Church community is the result of a special political and historical period.
“There was no mutual trust between the Holy See and Beijing, and this
indirectly led to a lack of trust between the government and the
unofficial community bishops, who insisted on the Church’s principles.
Should there be an agreement between the Holy See and China on the
appointment of bishops, that will imply considerable mutual trust
between the parties [and] the bishops of the unofficial communities
would no longer be regarded as the opposition for insisting on religious
principles,” Cardinal Tong said.
The cardinal anticipated arguments that China could not deal with the
Catholic Church without looking at the situation of other ethnic groups
and religions; for instance, the problems of Tibet and Xinjiang.
However, he said, people in those regions want autonomy or independence, which the Catholic Church is not seeking.
“The Chinese Catholic faithful are generally patriotic, good
citizens, who are not willing to engage in political activity,” Cardinal
Tong said. “They are people who will not threaten political and social
stability, and the Chinese rulers understand this perfectly. Therefore,
they will not put the problems of the Catholic Church and the problems
of Tibet and Xinjiang together on the same level.”
Cardinal Tong said he understood that, even with these changes, the
Church would not have complete freedom as in other countries.
“The choices in front of us are either to embrace the essential
freedom now and become an imperfect, but true Church, then struggle for
complete freedom in the hope of moving toward a perfect Church, or we
give up essential freedom and have nothing at all, and then wait for
complete freedom – but no one knows when this will ever happen. In fact,
the moral principle of the Church teaches us to choose the lesser of
“Therefore, under the teaching of the principle of healthy realism
that Pope Francis teaches us, it is clear which path the Catholic Church
in China ought to take,” he said.