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Back in business? Vatican creates new Chinese diocese, names new bishops

Within a week, the Vatican and Chinese government have successfully pushed through a small slate of episcopal appointments, under the norms of a 2018 bilateral agreement on the appointment of bishops.

Catholic Church in China. Image credit: Peter Griffin, Creative Commons/public domain.

The filling of two vacant sees, along with the conversion of an apostolic prefecture into a diocese, comes after years of deteriorating relations between the Holy See and Beijing, with the Chinese Communist government making a series of unilateral episcopal appointments and moving to suppress and erect dioceses in the country without Roman approval or even involvement.

With the controversial Vatican-China deal up for renewal later this year, the appointments may be a sign that both sides understand that the credibility of their undisclosed arrangement is at stake.

On Monday, Jan. 29, the Holy See announced the creation of the new mainland Diocese of Weifang, and the episcopal consecration of its first bishop, Anthony Sun Venjun. 

According to the Vatican, both decisions — the creation of the diocese from both the former apostolic prefecture of Yiduxian and territory from the Diocese of Yantai, and the consecration of Bishop Sun — had been made by Pope Francis in April 2023, but the announcements delayed until Monday, the day of Sun’s consecration.

“In this way, the territory of the Diocese of Weifang conforms to that of the principal city of Weifang, with a total area of 16,167.23 km2 and a total population of 9,386,705 inhabitants, of whom around 6000 are Catholics, served by ten priests and six religious sisters,” the Vatican said.

“The appointment was made in the context of the Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China” on the appointment of bishops, according to Vatican media. 

Church sources in China confirmed to The Pillar Monday that the redrawn territory was proposed by state authorities and accepted by Rome.

No reason was given for the decision to delay announcement of the new diocese and bishop for nearly a year. However, similar unilateral moves by the CPCA/CCP in recent months and years have complicated Vatican-China relations and brought into question the credibility of the 2018 provisional agreement on bishops.

The announcement Monday followed last week’s joint appointment by the Vatican and Chinese government of Thaddeus Wang Yuesheng as the new Bishop of Zhengzhou, which had been without a bishop for decades.

Chinese state authorities had in recent years established a pattern of appointing bishops without prior Vatican approval, which the Holy See then accepts sometime after the fact as a fait accompli

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In April last year, the same month Pope Francis supposedly approved the Weifang decisions, Bishop Joseph Shen Bin, 52, the erstwhile Bishop of Haimen, was installed as Bishop of Shanghai without Vatican approval or input.

Bishop Shen is also the president of the state-sanctioned Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, a body not recognized as the canonical bishops’ conference by the Holy See. 

While Sheng, as president of the BCCCC, enjoys a prominent position within the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the favor of the Communist Party, the Holy See did not acknowledge his appointment until July.

Speaking in July last year, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State acknowledged that Shen’s move to Shanghai was part of a broader pattern of appointments by Chinese state bodies which “seem to disregard the spirit of dialogue and collaboration established between the Vatican and the Chinese side over the years and to which is referred in the [Vatican-China] Agreement.”

However, Parolin said, the Vatican had decided to accept the move “for the greater good of the diocese.”

More troubling for the Vatican, and still unresolved, is the November 2022 move by Chinese authorities to install Bishop John Peng Weizhao as auxiliary bishop of Jiangxi, “a diocese not recognized by the Holy See,” despite Peng being the bishop of the Diocese of Yuijang.

Most recently, Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of the Diocese of Wenzhou was arrested shortly after Christmas after he objected to “the unauthorized downgrading of the [neighboring] Diocese of Lishui to parish status under the Diocese of Wenzhou.”

The creation of new dioceses, including Monday’s announcement, to better “conform” to local population distribution and civil administrative districts is in line with a clear priority of the Chinese government, supported by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association — the Communist Party-affiliated body through which the Church is recognized by the government.

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A senior mainland cleric close to the Chinese episcopal hierarchy told The Pillar this week that seeking to change the diocesan map of the country was not “just a flex” by state authorities “although it is certainly that, too.”

“First of all, the government believe that the organization of religious bodies is as much their concern as the organization of refuse collection,” said the cleric, who asked not to be named citing government backlash. 

“The idea of private institutions having autonomy is alien. Even privately owned domestic corporations find themselves having directors imposed upon them, directors who are in effect party secretaries within the company and can be really very powerful,” he said.

“The second thing that’s going on here is the diluting of dioceses where there has been a low take up of membership of the [Chinese Catholic] Patriotic Association by a merger with dioceses with higher take up,” he explained.

The cleric also noted that the geographic boundaries of mainland dioceses and apostolic prelatures tend to predate the 1949 Communist revolution. 

“There is a sense that dioceses should share their boundaries with political divisions, in much the same way as the French had the ecclesiastical boundaries redrawn under the Civil Constitution of the French clergy during the revolutionary period, to match the boundaries of the civil departments,” he said. 

“The government see that as being well within their competence.”

But Beijing’s growing indifference to the Holy See in Church affairs has strained Vatican-China relations. Last year, Cardinal Parolin called it “indispensable” “that all episcopal appointments in China, including transfers, be made by consensus, as agreed.” 

In a rare public acceptance that this is not what is happening under the norms of the Vatican-China deal, Parolin called on the government to “prevent disharmonious situations that create disagreements and misunderstandings” and for the creation of a canonically legitimate episcopal conference for China, as opposed to the BCCCC.

In an interview last April, the same month the pope supposedly approved the Weifeng diocese’s creation, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See’s chief foreign affairs minister, said that negotiations were underway with Chinese authorities for the appointment of new bishops. 

But the archbishop also described the current Vatican-China arrangement as “not the best deal possible, because of the other party.”

“We can only achieve so much,” Gallagher said. “So we just move forward.”

When the Vatican-China deal was first agreed in 2018, the Vatican said that its key concern was to allow “the faithful to have bishops who are communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.”

The deal, agreed for a period of two years, has been renewed twice since then and expires at the end of September this year.

While sources at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State have described the renewal of the agreement as “almost certain,” the continued unilateral actions of the Chinese authorities to appoint bishops and restructure dioceses without Vatican input have complicated matters.

One source close to the secretariat told The Pillar that there is a “sense of urgency” to demonstrate the provisional agreement had not broken down completely and to avoid an October renewal looking like “a farce or worse.”

The January episcopal appointments and the creation of the Diocese of Weifang may, then, be the first of a series of co-announcements from Rome and Beijing in the coming months in a bid to get the deal back on track for October.

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