A group of prominent Catholics has penned an open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church around the world, hitting out at an expected agreement between the Vatican and Beijing that could see bishops appointed by the Chinese government once more recognized by Rome.
According to a report from Reuters, the Holy See and the government of the People’s Republic of China will soon reach an agreement over the issue of bishop appointment, as well as recognition of seven bishops recognized by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, but not currently by the Pope.
“We are deeply shocked and disappointed,” the letter, signed by influential Catholics in Hong Kong, the U.K. and the U.S., reads.
“The seven illicitly ordained “bishops” were not appointed by the Pope, and their moral integrity is questionable,” it said, warning: “If they were to be recognized as legitimate, the faithful in ...
China would be plunged into confusion and pain, and schism would be created in the Church in China.”
Letter signatory and London-based Catholic Lai Yan-ho told RFA that the reported agreement on bishops would be “in major conflict with the teachings, the essence and the future development of the Catholic Church.”
“The news we have seen in media reports is that the underground Catholic churches that follow the Pope will be brought more in line with the open Catholic Church [recognized by the ruling Chinese Communist Party],” Lai told RFA.
“The underground Catholic Church in China as a body has already been subjected to great persecution, and this agreement will marginalize it still further,” he said.
The letter cited church articles as saying that the right to nominate and appoint bishops belongs only to the Church, not to any secular body such as the atheist Chinese Communist Party.
“We fully understand that the Holy See is eager to be able to evangelize in China more effectively,” the letter said. “However, we are deeply worried that the deal would create damages that cannot be remedied.”
It said religious persecution continues unabated under the administration of President Xi Jinping amid “heavy-handed control” by religious affairs officials.
“Xi has also made it clear that the Party will strengthen its control over religions, so there is no possibility that the Church can enjoy more freedom,” the letter said, warning that the Church’s holiness and moral power could be irreparably damaged by the reported move.
“The Church would no longer be able to have the trust of people,” it said. “We urge that any agreement must be grounded in the protection of religious freedom, and an end to religious persecution.”
The letter cited China’s newly revised regulations on religious affairs, which came into effect earlier this month, allowing for stricter scrutiny of religious organizations and believers.
Wonderful but fake
The letter came after a senior Catholic cardinal accused the Vatican of acting “unfaithfully” in its rapprochement with China, saying it would put the country’s some 12 million faithful in a bird cage controlled by the Communist Party.
“[The Chinese government] says the last word belongs to the Holy Father. Sounds wonderful? But it’s fake,” Hong Kong’s outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen, 86, told a news conference.
”They are not going to make good choices for the Church ... surely they choose the one they prefer, which means the one who always obeys the government. So how (could) the Holy Father approve such a choice?” he asked.
Relations between Beijing and the Vatican have come under repeated strain as China moves to ordain more and more of its own bishops without Vatican approval to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population.
The Vatican typically responds by excommunicating bishops who accept Beijing's consecration ceremonies, saying that only the Pope can appoint bishops.
But recent Vatican delegations to China have been edging closer to an agreement, Reuters and Catholic news sites have reported since December.
While the Vatican currently maintains formal diplomatic links with the 1911-founded Republic of China government on Taiwan, Beijing and the Vatican resumed official contact in 2014, and Beijing has made an appeal for closer ties to Pope Francis.
China's officially sanctioned Catholic Church has between five and six million members, while an underground church loyal to Rome has as many as 10 million followers.
But Xi and religious affairs officials have repeatedly warned against the "infiltration of Western hostile forces" in the form of religion, particularly Christianity.
Xi's tougher policy approach has resulted in much tighter controls on religious believers across the country, including a nationwide ban on children attending religious services or educational events last year.
The Vatican is the only European state with which Taiwan — as the seat of the 1911 Republic of China founded by Sun Yat-sen — still has full diplomatic relations.
While Taiwan has governed its own affairs under the Republic of China name since defeated Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war, Beijing regards the island as a Chinese province awaiting reunification.
Reported by Ma Lap-hak for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Lin Ping for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.