A new bishop was installed as the leader of the Shanghai diocese Tuesday, without public recognition from the Vatican. Both local priests and a Vatican official say the move was provocative, canonically illicit, and likely to prompt opposition from local Catholics in Shanghai.
Bishop Joseph Shen Bin, 52, the erstwhile Bishop of Haimen, was installed as Shanghai’s new bishop with no formal announcement from the Vatican, or even from his own diocese before the liturgy commenced.
In an unusual move, priests in Shanghai were sent last week invitations to the installation of a new bishop, who was not named on the invitation.
In an April 4 installation at the diocesan Cathedral of St. Ignatius, Bishop Shen, who is also the president of the state-sanctioned Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, promised to lead the Shanghai diocese with “patriotism and love.”
One cleric in China told The Pillar Tuesday that local priests had expected Shen to be installed as their bishop — he said word of the appointment was “in the wind” among the city’s presbyterate in the days preceding the mysterious installation.
The cleric, who requested anonymity because of the possibility of government reprisal, said that Chen’s name was likely omitted from the invitation to avoid the possibility of protests against his installation.
Describing Bishop Shen as “a capable man, who believes the faith” the cleric said Shen “recognizes the reality of life in China means that if you want room to maneuver for the good of the faithful, you sometimes have to make compromises.”
But the cleric said the appointment is likely to meet with resistance from local Catholics and clergy, many of whom expected a local auxiliary bishop, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, to become the leader of the diocese.
Bishop Ma was consecrated auxiliary bishop of the Shaghai diocese in 2012 and placed under house arrest at the diocesan seminary the following day, after the bishop said he planned to resign from the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the Communist Party organization which oversees the Church in China on behalf of the government, in which Catholic clergy are obliged to register in order to minister.
Since Ma’s episcopal consecration, government restrictions on his activity have been somewhat loosened, but local reports indicate that the bishop is effectively only allowed to function as a diocesan priest.
Some local clergy contend that at the time of his consecration, Ma was installed and accepted by the Chinese authorities as coadjutor bishop of Shanghai, with automatic canonical right of succession.
The Pillar has been unable to confirm that claim, and even the bishop’s consecration was not listed in Vatican bulletins.
The diocese has been considered vacant since the death of Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang in 2014.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, citing concerns of government reprisal, a Chinese priest close to Shen and familiar with the Shanghai diocese told The Pillar that local priests in Shanghai are frustrated that Shen was installed with no public recognition from the Vatican.
The priest said Tuesday that the diocese is “ultra turf-sensitive.”
Even if local clergy had no particular personal objections to Shen, the manner of his appointment could see the bishop “facing long-term active passive non-cooperation from [local] stakeholders as [he is] a superimposed nomination.”
Another priest told The Pillar that Shen’s appointment was the result of a “fixed game.”
“The fact that Shen overrode the Shanghainese game in virtue of his influence as the president of the illicit bishops’ conference and made himself the Bishop of Shanghai is not entirely welcome by the locals,” the priest said.
“Deep down the Shanghai diocese has never liked playing along with the national-level political maneuverings” with the Church, the priest said.
The Holy See in 2018 announced a two-year agreement with the Chinese government for the appointment of bishops for mainland China, intended to unify the underground Church in the country with the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
While the terms of that deal remain unpublished, it was made known by the Vatican that it granted the Chinese Communist Party some role in the selection and approval process for episcopal appointments, and it has been renewed twice, in 2020 and 2022.
Since the deal came into force, several bishops have been named to mainland sees by Chinese authorities, without apparent Vatican approval.
While Sheng, as president of the BCCCC, enjoys the clear favor of the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Communist Party, the Holy See did not announce or acknowledge his appointment on Tuesday.
One Vatican official close to the Secretariat of State, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, told The Pillar on Tuesday that Shen’s appointment had “not originated with the Holy See.”
It was instead a “regrettable action” by Chinese authorities, the official said.
“This is not the same as the situation with Bishop Peng,” the official said, referencing a November 2022 episcopal appointment in China, in which a serving diocesan bishop vacated his see to become an auxiliary bishop for a diocese which the Vatican does not recognize.
“But,” the official said, “it is still unhelpful.”
The official’s comments raise questions about the validity of Shen’s installation as Shanghai’s bishop. Canon law provides that appointments to episcopal offices must be made, or at least confirmed, by the pope. If Pope Francis did not approve Shen’s installation in Shanghai, it does not seem clear that the bishop actually possesses the office — as local clerics have pointed out.
In 2021, the Vatican announced its approval of similar, apparently unsanctioned installations in Chinese dioceses only after they had taken place. There has not yet been any such announcement for Shanghai.
One priest of the Shanghai diocese said after the installation Tuesday that the manner of Sheng’s appointment was proof that the 2018 Vatican-China agreement on the appointment of bishops was essentially no longer operative.
“This is an appointment made by the Chinese government,” the priest said.
“We will not obey. It is a death knell for the Sino-Vatican accord. If the Vatican says anything that recommits to that [agreement], everybody will know they have been made to kowtow to the CCP.”
In an interview last month, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See’s secretary for relations with states — essentially its 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.”