09/28/2018, 12.40
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The China-Vatican agreement: Testing the winds of change

by Jean Charbonnier

The Chinese media gave little resonance to the signing of the agreement. It would seem a first point scored by Beijing against the Vatican. The position of underground Catholics is weakened. There is a suspicion that the Church sides with the strongest. But the purpose of Pope Francis is in the spirit of the Gospel. What will happen to the 30 or more underground bishops? And will underground priests have the freedom not to join the Patriotic Association? The distribution of the new dioceses creates greater control over the life of the Church and even more difficult living conditions for the underground. It is not convenient for China to break relations between the Vatican and Taiwan. From the missionary and sinologist Jean Charbonnier, of the Missions étrangères de Paris.

Paris (AsiaNews) - Eglises d'Asie agency yesterday released an analysis of the agreement between China and the Holy See on Episcopal appointments written by sinologist Fr. Jean Charbonnier, Mep, who spent years living in China. By kind permission of EdA, we publish  the comment in full below (translation from French edited by AsiaNews).

At first glance what strikes one the most is the modality of the agreement. It was signed in Beijing. More honor to them. The representative of the Chinese government linked to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, can traditionally be more liberal when domestic politics reinforces its discipline. The agreement does not imply any change in the brutal application of the new law on religions, in force since last February. At the same time, the Chinese government can assert its official agreement with Rome to force all Catholics to enter the "patriotic" framework of official party politics. The position of the underground community has been weakened. However, Cardinal Parolin proclaims the agreement as a victory and the whole world is invited to rejoice. This first sign of agreement between Rome and Beijing had undoubtedly long been awarited. But is it so important? The Chinese media, for their part, give it very little importance.

What do we know about this agreement?

Three elements are explicitly expressed:

1. The seven illegitimate bishops appointed without the approval of Rome, three of whom excommunicated, have been reconciled with the Holy See after having officially asked forgiveness. This is a victory for the Chinese government. It is a consolation for the bishops concerned. For underground Catholics who do not understand this move by the Holy See, it is a weakening of Roman authority. From the point of view of Chinese psychology, it represents an intolerable loss of face and fear of more sanctions. If you can compare the Vatican-Beijing dialogue to a football match, the white team of the Pope has given the Beijing reds first kick of the ball and even let them score their first goal.

2. The Pope accepts the Chinese "democratic" process for the election of bishops. The priests, religious and laity of the patriotic association of the diocese participate in the elections. Their candidate is then presented to the Chinese Episcopal Conference. The agreement stipulates that the elected candidate must be presented to the Holy See for a final approval by the Pope. The Pope can then exercise a right of veto if the candidate is not adequate. It would have been a victory for the Pope if this provision were confirmed in practice. But it was almost immediately negated by the fact that the Holy See had to recognize seven bishops appointed without Papal consent and even, for some, despite explicit Papal refusal. This internal contradiction speaks volumes about the true scope of the agreement. The effect of the first goal scored by China significantly weakens the defense of the whites. It is also true that in the eyes of the Church this is not a struggle, but a friendly and respectful gesture.

3. The Apostolic Prefecture of Chengde, in the province of Hebei, was elevated to the rank of suffragan diocese of the archbishopric of Beijing. Will the ecclesiastical regions of 1946 be restored? The territory of Chengde is more extensive. The agreement presents this change as a will of the Pope. It would be a first intervention by the pontiff in the fate of the dioceses of China in decades ... It is a victory for Msgr. Guo Jincai, one of the reconciled bishops, who has just built a prestigious and expensive cathedral. Is there a political design in the new prestige offered to the bishop of Chengde? Chengde hosts the Summer Palace of Chinese emperors. It was in this palace that, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the emperor Kangxi welcomed the delegate of the Holy See, Msgr. de Tournon. The emperor did not understand the requests of the delegate. He found out that "the emperor of the religion Jiaohuang" (Chinese translation of the word "Pope") intruded into China's internal affairs. Shortly after this audience, Msgr. De Tournon officially transmitted the papal decree that forbade Chinese Christians to practice the cult of ancestors, considered a superstition. According to the Confucian norm, the ritual implied the recognition of absolute obedience to the sovereign. Msgr. De Tournon was immediately exiled to Macau, where he received the cardinal's hat from the Pope. The honor given today to the bishop of Chengde could be interpreted as a historical revenge for Roman requests, always considered as a political interference that calls into question the absolute power of the Party.

Rome, on the other hand, specifies that the purpose of this agreement is mainly pastoral and wishes to promote unity among all Catholics in China. Given the extent to which Pope Francis supports this agreement which he has always strongly desired, one would presume that the pontiff is inviting the Church to an act of humility in the face of a rich and powerful China. Its purpose is certainly not to seek a compromise with the new exploiters of the Chinese people. The Church has often been reproached for siding with the strongest. This could still be the case in Vatican politics, which must take into account the role of China in the life of today's world. But the purpose of Pope Francis is in the spirit of the Gospel. It is to allow all Catholics in China to unite with each other for the good of their country, in a spirit of service and love.

The un-spoken of agreement.

What has been revealed to us is nothing but the tip of iceberg. What's under the water? According to the logic of the declared measures, we can conclude that the Holy See recognizes the legitimacy of the Chinese Bishops' Conference, since it will have to take into consideration the candidates to the episcopate that it will present. Should we therefore conclude that the approximately 30 underground bishops will be invited to join this conference, which is in fact still controlled by the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics? Is their right to refuse to be recognized by the Church? Otherwise, the risk would be that the basements become doubly underground, in relation to the State and the Church. Then there would be the risk of a schism by the Catholics most faithful to the Church. Does the agreement contain a clause that specifies the role of the Catholic Patriotic Association? Is it a positive participation of the laity in the practical management of the dioceses and churches? Is the bishop's authority in religious matters respected?

Another important aspect is the recognition of the new diocese of Chengde. According to the public version of the agreement, it is the Pope who is the creator of this new diocese. Is this the beginning of a reflection of the Holy See on the new administrative division of the dioceses? According to the papal yearbook, China has 144 dioceses created by Rome. The new administrative division of the dioceses, implemented under the aegis of the Patriotic Association of Catholics, reduces the number of dioceses to 96. Given the evolution of China, this reshuffle seems quite reasonable. But the maintenance by Rome of the ancient dioceses allowed the underground bishops to stay close to the bishops of the new recognized dioceses. The priests could put themselves at the service of the diocese and of the bishop who was more suited to them. Are these problems dealt with in the agreement?

In a fairly logical way, in general the new administrative distribution responds to the development of the new administrative centers and to the reduction of the number of priests. Since 1950, most of the dioceses run by foreign bishops and missionaries have seen the number of priests reduced by two thirds. The periods of repression up until the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 have further reduced the number of Chinese priests. Following the new modernization policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, Chinese priests who were able to leave forced labor camps or prisons were able to resume their ministry. Their first concern was to teach Latin to some young people in order to guarantee succession. The seminaries were opened in 1982. Luckily, vocations were numerous until the end of the twentieth century. But in some dioceses only two or three priests remained. In the province of Hunan, seven dioceses were grouped to form the single diocese of Changsha, capital of the province. The bishop of Changsha has about twenty priests.

It is probable that the current agreement contains a clause that provides for the recognition of the new mapping of the dioceses in China. This means greater control over the life of the Church and even more difficult living conditions for the undergrounds.

An experiment on the Silk Road

One crucial issue which forms part of the agreement remains. The Chinese government has repeatedly reiterated that any agreement with Rome provided that the Vatican first interrupted diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Some Vatican officials have often suggested that the Holy See would not have difficulty transferring its representation from Taipei to Beijing. For the Holy See, a break with Taipei is conceivable only if the government of the People's Republic makes a request for resumption of diplomatic relations, which it broke in 1952 by expelling the apostolic nuncio Riberi.

Diplomatic relations had been established with China in 1942 and the nuncio resided in Nanjing, then the capital of China under the Kuomindang nationalist government. Bishop Riberi remained in Nanjing under the new popular government and did not follow Chiang Kaishek to Taiwan, awaiting the provisions of the new government. The new government chased him shamefully from Hong Kong in 1952, calling him representative of Vatican imperialism.

Fifty years later, in 2000, the Vatican was once again the subject of heavy insults for having canonized 120 Chinese martyrs, some of whom, it would seem, had played the game of French imperialism. The memory of the humiliations suffered by China in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 is still alive in the minds of Chinese leaders. The current Chinese government is certainly not looking for diplomatic relations with the Vatican although, if you think about it, it may be in their interest.

The People's Republic of China could be content to no longer demand that the Vatican breaks relations with Taiwan. The freedom of the Church in Taiwan ensures a concrete link with the Catholics of the continent and favors the union between the island and the motherland. The cultural and social service of Catholics in Taiwan bears witness to the Church's love and respect for the Chinese people. Since the Second Vatican Council, 60 years ago, the Church in Taiwan has worked effectively to sinicise the Church in producing an expression of faith in Chinese language and culture. In the absence of diplomatic relations with Beijing, Taiwan is home to the only Chinese territory where the Church can fully testify its love for the Chinese people. Breaking with Taiwan would be a suicide for the Church in China. When one wants to fly in a hot air balloon, first a small "test balloon" is released to check the wind direction and strength. Perhaps this is what is happening in Beijing. We hope that the few published articles of the agreement will not trigger a destructive typhoon in the Church that would delay this flight for further decades. We hope that the balloon will be able to lift off, setting out on a peaceful flight over all of China, from Guangzhou to Harbin, from Taiwan to Kashgar, and continues along the entire Silk Road, from Beijing to Rome.

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