The unusual new normal on Chinese bishops’ appointments

Bishop Francis Cui Qingqi at his Mass of consecration.

Ed. Condon at The Pillar:

The consecration of a new bishop for China, where dozens of dioceses remain vacant, should be big news. But the way the appointment was announced, both in China and in Rome, was unusual.And it could suggest ongoing dysfunction at the heart of the Church’s agreement with the Chinese Communist Party.

Customarily, episcopal appointments are announced in the Vatican’s daily news bulletin, usually months before bishops are actually consecrated and installed. Bishop Cui’s appointment was not announced in that way. 

Instead, the director of the Vatican press office, Matteo Bruni, released a brief statement Wednesday confirming the bishop’s appointment and consecration

Bruni made the statement “in response to questions from journalists,” and said the bishop’s appointment had been made by Pope Francis on June 23 of this year. 

The Vatican offered no explanations as to why the appointment was not announced by the Vatican in June, why it had not appeared in the day’s list of resignations and appointments, and whether Pope Francis had actually approved it.

The sequence of events was, in a word, strange, and inconsistent with the Vatican’s way of doing things. 

Except for China. In fact, Cui is the second bishop in a row whose consecration as a bishop has been announced by Chinese ecclesial authorities without prior announcement of the appointment by the Vatican. 

Last November, Bishop Thomas Chen Tianhao was consecrated bishop of the Diocese of Qingdao. The consecration was announced by the CPCA without any prior announcement from Rome. His appointment was confirmed in a similar statement from Bruni, again issued “in response to questions from journalists.”

Several sources close to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State of State, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and in China — and all familiar with the appointment process  —  told The Pillar the consecration of both bishops had been organized by the CPCA without consultation in Rome.

One Vatican official close to the Secretariat of State told The Pillar on Wednesday that “Rome doesn’t announce the appointments ahead of time because no one knows.”

The same source said the Vatican’s statement that Pope Francis had formally appointed Cui in June was “a generous interpretation of events.”

“If it was possible to appoint and announce new Chinese bishops in the same way as every other appointment, [the Vatican] absolutely would,” the source said. “It would show the agreement was working and the situation of the Church in China was normalizing. That doesn’t happen because it isn’t possible. Because there is nothing normal about how these things happen.”

A senior ecclesiastical official in China told The Pillar that, the Vatican’s formal agreement with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops notwithstanding, the actual amount of Vatican influence over appointments is “anyone’s guess.”

According to Chinese law, Catholic bishops in the country are “are approved and consecrated by the Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference,” working together with the CPCA, with whom the bishop must register. 

The law includes no formal acknowledgment of Vatican involvement in the appointments.

According to sources close to the process, the pope’s approval of a candidate may come before or after the CPCA’s final decision, or even not at all, effectively leaving Rome with the choice of accepting Chinese appointments as they happen, or else face a renewed schism between Rome and the CPCA — the Chinese ecclesial association which oversees the Church in China, and which has long appointed bishops in China without Vatican approval. That practice was supposed to end with the 2018 Vatican-China agreement.

Cui, it should be noted, is reportedly close to the Beijing government, and has been selected by the Chinese Communist Party for several ecclesiastical oversight roles. 

If Chinese bishops are still being appointed and consecrated without formal or prior papal agreement, it would suggest that, three years after the Vatican-China deal was signed, Beijing has secured Vatican recognition of the formerly schismatic CPCA and its bishops, while offering up no apparent concessions in return. 

While Francis has made it clear that he will not walk away from the negotiating table, or the Vatican-China deal, it seems increasingly clear that the pope accepts China has outmaneuvered the Church.

In an interview last week, Francis acknowledged that the progress made on appointing bishops under the Vatican China deal had produced “questionable results.” He also appeared to accept that Beijing was not a reliable party to do business with. Nevertheless, the pope recommitted himself, and the Church, to continue with the diplomatic process.

“China is not easy, but I am convinced that we should not give up dialogue,” Francis said. “You can be deceived in dialogue, you can make mistakes, all that… but it is the way.”

If Beijing is betting the pope will accept effective control by the CPCA of the Church in China rather than declare another schism, there are signs they are likely right. 

But the increasingly public way in which the CCPA is flexing control over episcopal appointments is costing the Vatican “face” over the already unpopular deal. 

Rome is not without diplomatic countermoves it could make, if it wanted to push back on China.

If Pope Francis wants a dialogue with the mainland that respects the Holy See as a real partner, he may have to consider thinking outside the box.

While the “sinicization of religion” in China is a policy aim for President Xi Jinping, far higher on his list of priorities is the diplomatic isolation of the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan, which Beijing considers to be a rebel province. 

Taiwanese annexation, or “reunification” in the mind of China, has long among Xi’s overriding ambitions as president. As Beijing makes the derecognition of Taiwan a condition for trade and investment deals, the Holy See has become the last major world diplomatic power to formally acknowledge Taiwan as a sovereign state.

Although the Holy See technically has full bilateral diplomatic relations with Taiwan, for years its embassy has not had a nuncio assigned to lead its mission. Instead, the nunciature has been led by a charge d’affairs since 1971. 

If Pope Francis wanted to signal his dissatisfaction with the way China is managing episcopal appointments on the mainland, the threat of appointing an ambassador to Taiwan might be enough to make Beijing take more seriously its obligations in the Vatican-China.

It would be a highly unusual move by the Vatican, but little about Vatican-China relations is normal.  

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