March 18, 2020 (Settimo Cielo) — In the letter that the dean of the sacred college, Giovanni Battista Re, wrote on February 26 to all the cardinals, in contradiction with the previous letter addressed to them in September by Cardinal Joseph Zen Zekiun, there is one point on which the split between the two cardinal is absolute.
In his letter Zen had written, regarding the provisional and secret agreement of September 22 2018 between the Holy See and China on the appointment of bishops:
“I have cause to believe (and I hope one day to be able to demonstrate with archival documents) that the signed agreement is the same one that Pope Benedict had, in his day, refused to sign.”
To which Re rebutted:
“This assertion does not correspond to the truth. After having personally taken stock of the documents kept in the current archive of the secretariat of state, I can attest that Pope Benedict XVI had approved the draft agreement on the appointment of bishops in China, which could be signed only in 2018.”
Zen’s rejoinder came on March 1 in an open letter to Re, in which the Chinese cardinal writes:
“If you want to prove to me that the recently signed agreement was already approved by Benedict XVI, you just have to show me the text of the agreement, which I am barred from seeing till now, and the archival evidence which you say you could verify. Then there remains to be explained why it was not signed at that time.”
In the absence of public documentation it is difficult to say which of the two cardinals is more in the right.
However, we can get at the truth by retracing the whole history of the relations between the Holy See and China during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, from 2005 to 2013.
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This is what one of the leading experts on the Chinese Catholic Church, Gianni Criveller, recently did in the chapter “An Overview of the Catholic Church in Post-Mao China”, which appeared in the volume “People, Communities, and the Catholic Church in China,” edited by Cindy Yik-yi Chu and Paul P. Mariani, published in Singapore in 2020.
Criveller, 59, of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, teaches at the Chinese University and the Holy Spirit College of Theology and Philosophy in Hong Kong. His essay has been translated in full and published in “Il Regno,” the most authoritative magazine of the progressive Italian Catholic camp.
Criveller's essay is of extraordinary interest, especially where he deals with the differences between the two Catholic communities in China, the one with official recognition from the regime, severely subjugated, and the highly endangered “underground” one, or where he explains the reasons and the effects of the “Chinafication” of the religions and of the return to Confucianism, advocated by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
But limiting ourselves to what Criveller writes about the years of Benedict XVI's pontificate, he does not hesitate to assign “historic” importance to the Letter to Chinese Catholics written by that pope in 2007. And about the fate of the bishops in that country he writes :
“Benedict XVI asked the civil authorities to recognize the underground bishops. However, he admitted that ‘almost always’ the official bishops are obliged to ‘adopt attitudes, perform gestures and make commitments that are contrary to the dictates of their conscience.’ Strangely, the phrase ‘almost always’ was omitted in the first Chinese translation issued by the Vatican, provoking the protest of Cardinal Zen. The pope left it up to the individual bishops to determine the best course of action to be taken in their specific situations, that is, whether or not to seek recognition from the civil authorities.”
Criveller notes that “the Chinese government made every effort to downplay the significance of this letter.” And proof of this was the regime’s persistence in installing illegitimate bishops, that is, not approved by Rome.
In 2006, the year before the letter was published, there had been three illegitimate ordinations. After that, from 2007 to the summer of 2010, the new bishops were ordained with the consent of both sides, “although the approval,” Criveller points out, “was always given independently, without direct negotiations.”
But in the fall of 2010 the situation deteriorated again. The illegitimate consecration of Guo Jincai as bishop of Chengde, writes Criveller, “caused a deterioration in relations between the Vatican and China.” And at the beginning of the following summer two other bishops were consecrated without the pope's approval: Lei Shiyin in Leshan and Huang Bingzhang in Shantou. The affront was received in Rome with such alarm that for the first time the Holy See reacted by publicly declaring the excommunication of those bishops installed by the regime.
Meanwhile, in December 2010, a no less disturbing episode occurred, as described by Criveller:
“The government held in Beijing, with great fanfare, the eighth national assembly of Catholic representatives. The agenda of the meeting included the election of the new leaders of the Patriotic Association and of the Conference of Bishops [that is, the two bodies with which the regime exercises ironbound control over the official Catholic Church —ed.]. Joseph Xing Wenzhi, auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, went grudgingly to that controversial assembly. Once there, he participated in it with a passive attitude. He returned to Shanghai depressed, apologizing to his clergy for not being strong enough purely and simply to boycott the assembly. Right away the bishop’s personal life took a sad turn. Bishop Xing was accused by the secret police of having an affair with a woman. It was an alarming retaliation against a bishop who had shown the courage to resist the government’s policies.”
In April of 2012 there were two more ordinations approved by both sides, in Nanchong and Changsha, but the newly ordained “were forced to accept illegitimate bishops as consecrators.”
Then again, on July 6 of that same year, there was another illegitimate ordination. Yue Fusheng was ordained bishop of Harbin “despite the request made by the Holy See to refuse the election.” The priests of that diocese who had opposed it were forced to write a letter of submission and to concelebrate with the illicit bishop. Again, the Holy See publicly announced the excommunication of the new bishop. Which, Criveller writes, “can be a significant example of how the Chinese authorities are capable, at times, of bringing onto their side people who previously had been explicitly loyal to the pope.”
Years earlier, in fact, while still an ordinary priest Yue had been part of a delegation of Chinese priests authorized to participate in the Mass celebrated in Manila on January 15, 1995, by John Paul II, visiting the Philippines for World Youth Day. And when at the beginning of the Mass the flags of the various national delegations were raised, including the flag of Taiwan, and in retaliation the political leaders of the Chinese delegation ordered them to abandon the ceremony, none other than Yue was one of the very few who had the courage to disobey and to stay. While today he “is known for his weakness and his adherence to the government.”
But even more revealing of the deterioration of relations between the Holy See and China, in that 2012 which is the last glimpse of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, is what happened in Shanghai on July 7, with the ordination of Thaddeus Ma Daqin in the cathedral as new auxiliary bishop. Criveller writes:
“He was ordained with the approval of both sides. But the Chinese authorities imposed the presence of an illegitimate bishop, provoking the dismay of many priests, religious, and lay people who decided not to participate in the ceremony. Thaddeus Ma, in a shrewd maneuver, prevented the illegitimate bishop from laying his hands on him during the consecration rite. Towards the end of the Mass the new bishop declared that he wanted to be the pastor of all the faithful, so he would stop being a member of the Patriotic Association. An amateur video of Bishop Ma’s brief speech, publicly applauded by the people present in the cathedral, appeared for several days on various websites, until it was removed.
“Many thought the bishop’s gesture was courageous and prophetic. But the government officials present at the Mass went into a state of great agitation and took him away by force that evening. Officials put the diocese under investigation, interrogating priests and nuns. After eight years, Thaddeus Ma is still under ‘house arrest’ in the Sheshan seminary. His 2016 ‘confessions’ were written in captivity and we do not know if they were sincere and if he did or did not regret what he had done.”
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If this is the known, public fabric of the relations between the Holy See and China regarding the appointment of bishops between 2005 and 2013, it is not clear how to fit into this fabric the alleged “approval” during those same years, by Benedict XVI, of the agreement signed five years later. An agreement whose contents are still kept secret and which has so far produced no new episcopal appointment, eighteen months after its signing, and on the contrary has been accompanied by a further “crackdown” — as Criveller writes at the beginning of his essay — in the regime’s control over the Catholic Church.
It should also be borne in mind that with regard to China, Benedict XVI availed himself not only of the secretariat of state, but also of an “ad hoc” commission in which Cardinal Zen had significant influence — a commission never convened again during the pontificate of Francis.
It is therefore not to be ruled out that Pope Benedict was presented with draft agreements on the appointment of bishops. Just as it cannot be ruled out that the Chinese side turned down, during those same years, potential proposals from the Vatican.
But that the agreement that Cardinal Re says was “approved” by Benedict XVI was identical to the one signed in 2018 remains entirely to be proven.
And given the narrative of those years, as reported most recently by Criveller, this seems implausible. All the more so if one compares it with the “historic” letter written by Pope Benedict to the Chinese Catholics.
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It should be added that Cardinal Re’s letter falls under a phase of intensification of the Holy See’s policy of the “hand extended” to the Chinese regime.
The letter bears the date of February 26. And on the 14th of the same month, on the sidelines of an international conference in Munich, there was for the first time since the breaking of diplomatic ties in 1951 a meeting between the two foreign ministers of the Holy See and of China, Paul Richard Gallagher and Wang Yi (pictured).
And on March 5, in a video message broadcast in nine languages, Pope Francis himself expressed the hope that “Chinese Christians may be truly Christians, and be good citizens.” With a recommendation that also included a rebuke to the resistance: “They should promote the Gospel, but without engaging in proselytism, and they need achieve the unity of the divided Catholic community.”
All this, so far, without any reciprocation from the Chinese, which has only benefited from the Vatican’s openness without paying the slightest price. Exactly as with the 2018 agreement, which Criveller correctly calls “asymmetrical.”
Published with permission from Settimo Cielo.