SUNSET PARK — A controversial 2018 deal between the Vatican and China over the selection of bishops expired last month, but officials on both sides have indicated they are working on renewing it.
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn and Queens, Chinese Catholics say undisclosed details about negotiations add to confusion about Church leadership in their native country. That confusion drives a wedge between Catholics willing to cooperate with government regulators and others who want only to recognize the Vatican’s leadership, local Chinese clergy said.
Alice Chen, a member of St. Agatha’s parish in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, described how her mother back home in China disagreed with a long-time friend. The issue was about whose authority to follow.
Chen emigrated a little more than 10 years ago from Fujian Province on the southeast coast of China. In recent years, “underground” Catholic churches have been pressured to join the government-controlled China’s Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA).
“So now my mom — she always is saying she doesn’t want to go to church because some of the priests registered to be recognized by the government,” Chen said. “Of course she is Catholic from a long time ago. She said the church in Rome is the real one, and the other is the government church, so she says she doesn’t want to go there.”
Chen added that her mother and the other person are no longer friends, and her mother attends a different underground church.
Father Joseph Lin, a parochial vicar at St. Agatha’s and native of northwest China, said the confusion also “places a lot of division among the priests” in his homeland.
“The government wants influence over us, the church, to choose who can be a bishop, not we select a bishop by our free will,” Father Lin said. “In China, we understand we are under the government, but we have to follow our consciences, our doctrines, and our church teachings.
“Those government officials — they are not Catholic. They are atheists; they don’t believe in God.”
But Vatican officials insist the 2018 agreement over selecting bishops must be renewed as an ongoing process to improve relations with the People’s Republic of China and promote unity among Chinese Catholics.
In a speech given Saturday, Oct. 3 in Milan, Italy, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, stressed that agreement only concerns selecting bishops. It does not address the “many other problems” regarding the Church in China, he said.
“It has not been possible to address them all together, and we know that the road to full normalization will be a long one, as Benedict XVI predicted in 2007,” Cardinal Parolin said in a Catholic News Agency article about his speech.
Cardinal Parolin added that Pope Benedict had also approved the draft accord that Pope Francis ultimately signed in September 2018. Renewal of the agreement could come by the end of October.
Vatican and Chinese officials agreed not to publicize details of the agreement.
But Pope Francis has been very clear about his desire to restore communion with all Chinese Catholics.
To that end, the Vatican agreed to recognize seven Chinese bishops selected by the CCPA. Also, the government agreed to recognize three former “underground” bishops.
Going forward the CCPA can nominate candidates for bishop, but the pope makes the final decisions.
Still, many Chinese Catholics pan the accord, saying the Chinese government can’t be trusted to select bishops, given the continued crackdown on “underground” parishes.
They point to the Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing efforts to “sinicize” religion in that nation — that is to say, to make institutions Chinese in character and form.
Father Peter Bai, a parochial vicar at St. Michael’s parish in Flushing, Queens, said priests and bishops get arrested regularly in China if they disagree with the government. Frequently their whereabouts or their health conditions remain unknown.
“There is one bishop, he’s still missing, and we don’t know where he is,” said Father Bai, a native of Xian, China. “So what can we say about this agreement? It has already been there for two years, and the situation is not getting better.”
Outspoken against the deal is retired Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen, 88, who visited the Diocese of Brooklyn last February. Zen was cardinal of Hong Kong, 2002-2009, but continues to speak out for religious freedom and pro-Democracy ideas.
At the signing of the 2018 agreement, Cardinal Zen said the Vatican was “leading the flock to the mouths of wolves.”
“A totalitarian regime doesn’t compromise,” Cardinal Zen told The Tablet during his February visit. “They want complete surrender.”
Cardinal Zen went to the Vatican in the last week of September to discuss bishops with Pope Francis. Bai said the cardinal was there for three days, but never got an audience with the Holy Father.
And last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Rome but did not get to see Pope Francis.
That visit followed a Pompeo article that criticized how the Vatican deals with China on religious freedom. Church officials said Pompeo didn’t get a papal audience because of timing to next month’s election and popes routinely avoid campaign photo ops.
But Fathers Bai and Lin both lamented that Cardinal Zen, now in his late 80s, returned to Hong Kong without seeing the Pope.
Father Lin added that many Catholics in China don’t believe they’ve had a voice in the negotiations. His disappointment was with both the Chinese government and the Vatican.
“We are one church in China, but the government tries to separate us,” he said. “From one sense, the Sino-Vatican agreement wanted to unite the church in the underground and government churches. But I have heard no voice from our side, the Catholics from China. That’s wrong.
Chen said she was astounded to learn she could attend Mass every day in the U.S. She recalled that Mass was celebrated once a year by an ordained priest in her family’s underground parish when she was a child.
At St. Agatha’s, Chen attends Mass nearly every day to have what her mother experiences far less often.
“When I go to church,” she said, “I feel joyful. I have nothing there trying to consume my attention. I pray, and it is very peaceful.”
This article contains information from the archives of The Tablet.