The provisional agreement between the Vatican and Beijing, signed on September 22, 2018, is still officially being kept secret (cf. DIDI no. 377, October 2018). Meanwhile those in charge of religious affairs in the Chinese provinces are commissioned to denounce the ties of the Church in China with a foreign authority and to drive out Vatican “interference”.
The “Sinicization” of the Catholic Church in China
And so, the Catholic agency Ucanews reports, a “seminar” was held for 80 priests, nuns and lay people from October 8 to 11, 2018, in the city of Wuhan (Hubei province), during which the assistant director of the Provincial Committee for Ethnic and Religious Affairs explained the Regulations concerning religious affairs that had been revised on February 1, 2018. Underscoring the Vatican’s policy of interfering in China, he asked them to conform their religious activities to the interest of the government following the will of the last National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party about the Sinicization of the Church. The Church in China is duty-bound to be autonomously administered and independent of foreign pressures.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, worried on his blog as early as October 2 upon seeing that Pope Francis was “enthusiastic about the idea of talking about a new era of ‘unity’, as though the ‘secret agreement’ had miraculously succeeded in establishing a perfect and visible union.” He explained:
Unity is a question of organization that depends on strict control by the government. Will the government let believers live freely in their ‘clandestine’ life? Absolutely not.... This means asking the clandestine Church to get into the ‘bird cage’.
This “provisional agreement” claims to reunite the clandestine Church to the Patriotic Church by establishing the principle that Francis would approve the bishops appointed by Beijing. Recall that the Church in Chine has been divided since the Communist Party took power and created in 1950 the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, under the authority of the State, which appoints the bishops of the new so-called patriotic Church created thereby, driving underground the Church that remained in communion with Rome. “China has become more open, certainly, since the 1980’s, but even today everything is under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. The official Church in China is controlled by the so-called Patriotic Association and the conference of bishops, both directed by the Party,” Cardinal Zen explains.
“The Pope does not understand China”
Does this agreement give the Chinese authorities complete freedom to control Catholics more strictly? Why did Beijing sign an agreement with Rome? The New York Times dated October 24, 2018, ran an article by Cardinal Zen which he entitled “The Pope does not understand China.” Pope Francis, he explains, could not possibly understand the Communists, since he comes from South America where “some governments, which were historically controlled by the military and the rich, joined forces to oppress the poor.” The latter were defended, Cardinal Zen continues, by Communists and ... some Jesuits. Thus the Pope can only have sympathy for these Communists, who were the persecuted ones.
And yet, he emphasizes, the Holy See and Beijing broke off all relations in the 1950’s; the Catholics were then arrested and sent to work camps by the tens of thousands. “During the Cultural Revolution, the situation was unimaginably terrible. A whole nation in slavery. We forget these things too easily.”
The Cardinal then recalls that the faithful have suffered and been subject to increasing pressure since the beginning of this year, with the implementation of the new Regulations about the practice of religion. Currently the clandestine priests go so far as to dissuade their parishioners from coming to Mass so as to avoid being arrested. The Cardinal learned this from several of them who have confided in him.
“Today,” the Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong continues, “Pope Francis—who is naturally optimistic with regard to Communism—is being encouraged to be optimistic with regard to the Communists in China by the cynics who are around him.... I think that Cardinal Parolin cares less about the Church than about diplomatic success. His ultimate goal is the restoration of formal relations between the Vatican and Beijing.”
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun would comment further on Cardinal Pietro Parolin in the magazine Valeurs Actuelles dated November 1 while answering questions from interviewer Yves Chiron. “He does not have the faith! He is only pursuing a political goal. He wants a diplomatic agreement with China.” As for the Chinese government, “it is interested in a diplomatic agreement with the Holy See for the sake of its international prestige. It demands that the Vatican break off its diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognize the People’s Republic of China.” The Cardinal would be utterly astonished if the Pope could think that Church unity is possible in China: “There are so many facts that everyone knows ... how can he ignore them? He will not have the last word with the Chinese government.”
Toward the Disappearance of the “true Church of China”?
For the Chinese Cardinal, the agreement necessarily means that all bishops in China will have to join the Episcopal Conference affiliated with the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, under the authority of Beijing. Sincere there are currently around 70 “official” bishops and thirty or so “clandestine” bishops, the latter “will be forced to join the so-called bishops’ conference. They will be obliged to join the other Church in that bird cage and will become a minority party among them.”
And he declared: “The Vatican agreement, made in the name of unifying the Church in China, means the annihilation of the true Church in China.”
To clarify what he is saying, the Cardinal illustrates the situation as follows: “If I was a cartoonist, I would show the Holy Father on his knees, offering the keys of the kingdom of heaven to President Xi Jinping and saying: ‘Please recognize me as Pope.’”
“This is an atheistic government that wants more than ever to suppress the Church,” he again declared to journalists at the Salesian House in Hong Kong on September 26. The agency Ucanews reported his remarks on September 28: “The Chinese government will succeed in eliminating the clandestine Church with the Vatican’s help. Now that it stepping up its repression of religions, how can you think that this will lead to a good agreement? As if Saint John the Baptist negotiated with King Herod!”
The Cardinal also brings up the presence of two “official” Chinese bishops—Bishop Guo Jincai of Chengde, and Bishop John-Baptist Yang Xiaoting of Yan’an—at the Synod for Young People. He charges that these prelates “are known to be close to the government.” “The presence of two emissaries from the persecuting atheistic government is an insult to the good bishops in China and to the Synod of Catholic Bishops!” he wrote on his blog on October 3.
Communism is Not Eternal
In a background article published on September 27 by Églises d’Asie (Churches of Asia, EDA), Father Jean Charbonnier, a priest of the Paris Foreign Missions (Mission Étrangères de Paris, MEP) and a specialist in Chinese Christianity, explained that “the agreement in no way implies a change in the brutal application of the new law about religions that has been in force since February of this year.” He recalled the situation of the dioceses in China:
In the Roman Pontifical Yearbook, China has a total of 144 dioceses created by Rome. The new administrative reorganization of the dioceses, implemented under the aegis of the Patriotic Catholic Association, reduces to 96 the number of dioceses.... But Rome’s policy of keeping the old dioceses allowed the clandestine bishops to minister alongside the bishops of the new, officially recognized dioceses. The priests could seek the sponsorship of the diocese and of the bishop that suited them.
The priest from the Foreign Missions wonders: Are these questions addressed in the agreement?
As of 1950, most of the dioceses led by foreign bishops and missionaries saw the number of priests reduced by two thirds. The periods of repression, until the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, diminished also the number of Chinese priests. Following the new policy of modernization started by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the Chinese priests leaving the forced labor camps or prisons were able to resume their ministry. Their first concern was to teach Latin to some young men so as to provide for the next generation of priests. It was possible to reopen the seminaries as of 1982. Fortunately, there were numerous vocations until the end of the 20th century. But in some dioceses there were only two or three priests left. In Hunan Province, seven dioceses were consolidated to form the one Diocese of Changsha, capital of the province. The Bishop of Changsha has around twenty priests available. It is likely,” Fr. Charbonnier suggests, “that the current agreement contains a clause stipulating the recognition of the new map of the dioceses in China. This means”, he explains, “increased control of Church life and of even more difficult living conditions for clandestine Catholics.
In conclusion, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun begs the “clandestine” bishops and priest not to “start a revolution”. “Do they take away your churches? Can you no longer celebrate Mass? Go home and pray with your faithful. Wait for better times. Go back to the catacombs. Communism is not eternal.”
“I know the Church in China, I know the Communists and the Holy See. I am a Chinese native of Shanghai. I lived for many years on the mainland and for many years in Hong Kong. I taught in seminaries throughout China—in Shanghai, Xian, Beijing, Wuhan, Shenyang—between 1989 and 1996,” Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun wrote in The New York Times dated October 24, 2018. Born in a Catholic family in Shanghai on January 13, 1932, he entered the Salesians in 1944, pronounced his solemn vows in the congregation on August 16, 1955, and was ordained a priest on February 11, 1961, in Turin. He earned his doctorate in philosophy at the Salesian University in Rome in 1964. After returning to Hong Kon, he became a professor, from 1971 on, at Holy Spirit Seminary, and was elected Superior of the Chinese Province of Salesians in 1978. In 1989, as China started to become more open, he was the first Chinese priest from Hong Kong to be able to teach in the seminaries on the mainland. Until his episcopal consecration in 1996 he spent almost six months each year in different seminaries (official and clandestine) of the People’s Republic of China.