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This article was originally published by PerMariam: Mater Dolorosa.

VATICAN CITY (PerMariam) — Fresh on the news that the Vatican aims to renew its secretive deal with Beijing later this year, as broken by this correspondent, Pope Francis and Holy See officials will join controversial Chinese figures at a high-profile Vatican conference on China this week, billed as a major event.

On May 21, Rome’s Pontifical Urban University will be host to a conference entitled “100 years since the Concilium Sinense: Between history and present.” Organized by the Pontifical Mission Society’s “Fides Agency” and the university, the event is also the product of the Pontifical Commission on China – whose existence is rarely acknowledged by the Vatican.

News of the event was highlighted by La Croix, the unofficial daily of the French bishops, and Fides Agency published its own report one day later. The conference itself is to mark the 100th anniversary of the historic 1924 Council of China, or Council of Shanghai, at which Pope Benedict XV’s letter Maximum Illud was promulgated to all the bishops of China – who were at the time all missionaries, and not native.

However, it is not so much the conference alone, but rather the attendees and the encircling significance which have thrust the May 21 event into the spotlight.

READ: EXCLUSIVE: Cardinal Parolin confirms Vatican aims to renew secretive deal with China this year

Pope Francis is set to begin the conference via a video message, marking a rare papal intervention on the topic of Sino-Vatican relations. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin will also speak – Parolin being the architect of the highly controversial Sino-Vatican deal, which Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen has described as “incredible betrayal.”

Following Francis, and the subsequent showing of a 15-minute video about the 1924 conference, the Bishop of Shanghai – Bishop Shen Bin – is set to give the day’s second address, about whom more is found further below.

Closing the day is Cardinal Luis Tagle, pro-prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization and a proponent of the current Vatican stance of appeasement towards China.

Also present and delivering a speech will be Zheng Xiaojun, who serves as director of the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), and is also secretary-general of the Chinese Religious Society. The CASS is a leading proponent of the Sinicization of religion, by which China subverts religions to the control of the Communist state, particularly with regard to Christianity. The CASS has been noted as serving as a “bridge” to promote this endeavor of Sinicization between the political and religious communities,” a role it has played publicly since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Her presence, therefore, is key and has even been described as “unprecedented.”

Who is Bishop Shen?

Bishop Shen was installed as the new bishop of the Diocese of Shanghai on April 4, 2023 by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials. His appointment unilaterally came via the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Group, part of the official Chinese state-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). The Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Group is led by Shen and rejects the authority of the Holy See. (As documented by this correspondent herehere, and here.)

A member of the state church, Shen thus unsurprisingly announced during the installation ceremony that he would promote “the principle of independence and self-administration,” and committed to attempts to “Sinicize” Chinese Catholicism.

By thus installing Shen, the CCP completely ignored the Vatican’s then current Bishop of Shanghai – Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin. Bishop Ma had been placed under house arrest after the CCP realized upon his appointment in 2012 that he was faithful to the Holy See and not Beijing.

Some weeks after Shen’s move to Shanghai he followed up on his promise to “Sinicize” Catholicism. CCP officials visited the diocese of Shanghai where they urged local Catholics to “adhere to the direction of Sinicization of religion and actively guide religions to adapt to socialist society.”

It took the Vatican several long weeks to act, after having been blindside by Beijing. Only on July 15, 2023 did the Holy See issue a statement appointing Shen to Shanghai and moving him from his previous Vatican-approved post as the ordinary of the Diocese of Haimen.

Francis’ move to retroactively approve the CCP’s decision was widely slated by Catholics who have expressed concerns about the Vatican’s current relationship with Beijing. “Francis’s China policy is fully exposed as an unforgivable, wicked betrayal of Chinese Catholics, as he is forced to act as an agent of the CCP in installing its stooge as Bishop of Shanghai,” wrote The Spectator’s Damian Thompson.

Shanghai: Vatican’s care for pastoral concerns or bowing to greater power?

Seeking to defend the Pope’s move regarding Bishop Shen, Cardinal Parolin told Vatican News last summer that “the Holy Father Francis has decided to heal the canonical irregularity created in Shanghai, in view of the greater good of the Diocese and the fruitful exercise of the Bishop’s pastoral ministry.”

The cardinal secretary of state attested that Pope Francis’ intention in legitimizing the CCP’s transfer of Shen “is fundamentally pastoral and will allow Bishop Shen Bin to work with greater serenity to promote evangelization and foster ecclesial communion.”

But China expert Steven Mosher commented at the time that Francis was effectively forced into accepting Shen’s move in order to save face:

Should Pope Francis reject the CCP’s choice, who had already moved into the bishop’s residence in China’s largest diocese, he would effectively be announcing to the world that the Bishop Shen was in schism. And that his conciliatory approach to China had produced nothing but failure.

Thus it was that in summer last year, and again this May, the Vatican has bent its own will to the demands and pressure of Beijing. Bishop Shen will appear at the Urbania University’s conference with the full knowledge and direction of the CCP, whose representative he is. Critiquing such a turn of events, veteran Vaticanist Francis Rocca wrote last week that “[b]y accepting the dominance of the official Church, whose bishops Shen Bin leads, Rome is in practice accepting the supremacy of politics over religion.”

Commenting on Shen’s inclusion at the conference, Mosher told this correspondent that “Bishop Shen Bin is trusted by the Chinese Communist Party, which means that he has convinced them that his first loyalty is the Party and its leader, Xi Jinping.”

A new era for Sino-Vatican relations?

The conference has, as yet, received little official attention or promotion from the Vatican’s official news portals. A brief write up appeared on Vatican News a day after La Croix’s report was published, but otherwise an abashed silence has managed to prevail from the Holy See.

Yet according to one report, the conference could be swiftly followed by an “important announcement” regarding Sino-Vatican relations. Such an element is significant, particularly given the wider context of political moves being made, as evidenced by two aspects.

Firstly, on April 23, this correspondent broke the news from Cardinal Parolin that the Holy See aims to renew its secretive deal with Beijing later this year. The formal announcement of the deal’s renewal has yet to come, though in recent years it has tended to be announced in late summer or early autumn.

Secondly, at the same time, Cardinal Stephen Chow S.J., of the Diocese of Hong Kong, is continuing his controversial efforts to build relationships with the CCP state-controlled church by making another trip to Beijing for that purpose. Cardinal Chow has consistently spoken of his role in Hong Kong being that of a “bridge builder” between the Holy See and Beijing.

recent report by the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong (CFHK) Foundation argued that Chow is actively assisting the CCP to promote its agenda. “The Catholic church in Hong Kong is proactively suppressing information on religious persecution in China and has diluted its focus on advocating the rights of the faithful in China,” wrote report author Frances Hui.

READ: Catholic diocese of Hong Kong ‘working with CCP’ to effect ‘Sinicization’

Hui also referenced the “liaison office” which the Holy See hopes to open in China. According to Parolin, the Holy See hopes for “the opening of an established liaison office of the Holy See in China” which “would not only favor dialogue with the civil authorities, but also contribute to full reconciliation within the Chinese Church and its journey towards a desirable normality.”

But Hui attested that such plans raise “concerns about the potential legalization of state-controlled entities. Hong Kong clerics fear pressure to join associations pledging fidelity to the government.”

As recently as March this year, Archbishop Paul Gallagher sought to downplay suggestions that such a liaison office was likely. “We have always believed that this would be useful,” said Gallagher, but added there was no “willingness or openness” from the Chinese authorities on the point.

The English prelate, who serves as the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States and International Organizations within the Secretariat of State, has been very mildly critical of the Sino-Vatican deal, while in contrast both Francis and Parolin have defended the arrangement consistently.

But no matter the slight differences in public appraisal of the deal between Gallagher and Parolin, the Vatican’s line continues to be set – it appears – by Parolin. With the Sino-Vatican deal likely to be renewed in a few months, and the Holy See pushing for a liaison office which could also serve to be a Trojan horse, it appears that the policy of CCP-appeasement which has continued for so many years is likely to continue.

Reprinted with permission from PerMariam.