Hong Kong Cardinal Says Vatican and China Close to "Mutual Agreement" on Bishops

In a pastoral letter released this week Cardinal Tong shed light on the decades-long struggle between the Vatican and China.

The Head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong has said Chinese officials are now willing to “reach understanding” with the Vatican over the deeply contentious issue of appointing local bishops.

In a pastoral letter released on the Hong Kong diocesan website yesterday (4 August), Cardinal John Tong said that despite the differences and difficulties the Vatican and the Chinese Government have experienced over the years, “the Catholic Church has gradually gained the reconsideration of the Chinese Government, which is now willing to reach an understanding with the Holy See on the question of the appointment of bishops in the Catholic Church in China and seek a mutually acceptable plan”.

The cardinal’s comments come amid speculation that Pope Francis has been working behind the scenes to bring about a thaw in relations between the two states. The Pope sent good wishes to President Xi Jinping for Chinese New Year in February, a move that was, at the time, perceived by onlookers as a deliberate olive branch offered to the administration.

Catholics in China – who make up an estimated 12 million – are divided into the ‘official’ state-sanctioned Church and the ‘unofficial’ or ‘underground’ Church that swears first allegiance to the Pope. Beijing insists on having the right to appoint bishops or veto appointments made by Rome, so there is no official bishops’ conference of China.

Cardinal Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, has long been a fierce opponent of any compromise over negotiations with Beijing on matters of ultimate authority over Church matters. Speaking anonymously to Reuters news agency, members of the underground church have also reportedly expressed deep scepticism over any deal with China, given its human rights record.

China Aid, a Texas-based group that monitors the government’s treatment of all Christian denominations in China, said in its 2015 annual report that repression by the Chinese state had escalated, with the forcible closure of secretive house churches, the detention of “large numbers of pastors, church leaders and Christians,” and the confiscation of church property.

At least three bishops and a number of priests, all from ‘unofficial’ communities or dioceses, are imprisoned or under house arrest in China.

In his letter Cardinal Tong acknowledged that there was a certain level of unease felt by some Catholics towards the “mutual agreement”, but he said he believed Pope Francis “would not accept any agreement that would harm the integrity of faith of the universal Church or the communion between the Catholic Church in China and the universal Church.” He added: “They say it seems that the Holy See has given up certain values that it has upheld. This kind of criticism is unfair.”

Addressing the issue of ‘underground’ bishops not formally acknowledged by the Holy See, the cardinal said that “a future bishops’ conference in China would have to include all the legitimate bishops of the open Church as well as the clandestine bishops, to form an integral bishops’ conference in China…Rome should also conduct a dialogue in order that these bishops be recognised by the Chinese Government as legitimate.”

He admitted that the “concrete terms” of any agreement “have not been made public” and gave no indication of when this might happen.

The Vatican has not had diplomatic ties with Beijing since 1951 so any agreement would mark a dramatic new phase in Sino-Vatican relations.