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How Beijing Shanghai'd the ‘spirit’ of the Vatican-China deal

Both the Vatican and the Chinese government have weighed in publicly after an installation liturgy for Bishop Joseph Shen Bin in the Diocese of Shanghai this week. 

Both have, in their own ways, acknowledged that the move was a unilateral decision by Beijing. 

The candor of official spokespersons is an interesting development in itself, but the reality of Shen’s appointment — to lead a diocese without papal approval — also raises serious questions about the viability of the Vatican’s deal with China, and daily life for Chinese Catholics.

China ‘unilaterally’ appoints new Catholic bishop in Shanghai, Vatican says
Bishop Joseph Shen Bin, center. Credit: CCCB


Shen’s installation in Shanghai on Tuesday was the third appointment in a row in which a mainland Chinese diocesan bishop was named a new diocese without prior Vatican authorization. 

In the previous two cases, the Holy See issued post-facto statements attempting to claim that the pope had actually been aware of the appointments and approved them, even though they had gone unannounced and unacknowledged by Rome at the time. Even so, Vatican officials privately briefed that the appointments had been made without Vatican input. 

But in Shen’s case this week, the Vatican took a more open approach to events. 

After the bishop’s installation liturgy, the Vatican’s spokesman issued a statement saying the Holy See had only been “informed a few days ago of the decision by the Chinese authorities” to make Shen the Bishop of Shanghai, and had only learned the event had taken place through media reports.

It was a startling admission by the Vatican, which confirmed that Chinese authorities are making episcopal appointments without papal approval and — perhaps even more strikingly — suggesting the Vatican has less information and contact with local Catholics than some media outlets.

In a press conference on Thursday, the Chinese government’s foreign affairs spokesperson , Mao Ning, was asked about the “unilateral” appointment of Shen in apparent “violation of the bilateral pact” between Beijing and Rome. 

Ning, without disputing the premise of the question, responded that “communication” over Shen’s new job is ongoing, and said that the Chinese believe the Vatican-China deal is “in sound implementation.” 

“We are ready to maintain contact with the Vatican side to uphold the spirit of the agreement,” Ning said.

How “soundly” the agreement is being implemented, in letter or spirit, is open to speculation, since the text of the accord remains unpublished. 

But while the deal has been criticized in theory by many Vatican watchers since it was first announced in 2018, the practical problems with its implementation are becoming acute for Chinese Catholics.

While the Vatican’s public position has evolved into one of frustrated perseverance with the deal, and with its negotiations with Beijing, opinion on the ground in China has been hardening fast against both.

When the deal was announced in 2018 and renewed for the first time in 2020, criticism of the Church having any dealings with the CCP were not hard to find, in or outside of China. But, at the same time, the Vatican’s efforts were also defended by many Catholic clergy on the mainland, who initially took a “wait and see” approach.

Five years on, it is hard to find defenders of the deal among Chinese Catholics who are not themselves part of the government hierarchy. And, both on the mainland and in Rome, the general assessment is now that the CCP is determined to act in bad faith, making appointments and even reshaping the diocesan map of the country at will, and without reference to Rome.

Diplomatically, it has left the Vatican in something of a bind: the Holy See has no obvious leverage to deploy to get China to respect the Holy See’s prerogatives, but it cannot simply walk away from negotiations (however fruitless they have become) without risking even more dramatic interference in, and persecution of, the local Church.

But Shen’s appointment, and the Vatican’s admission that it was unilateral, raises serious questions beyond the realm of mere diplomatic chess.

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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, which could in turn have significant effects on the validity and liceity of his acts of governance as a bishop.

This is the real bind facing the Vatican Secretariat of State, which is charged with the implementation of the Vatican-China deal: It can either issue a papal recognition of Shen after-the-fact, and in doing so publicly invite Beijing to continue its string of unilateral appointments, or it can withhold it, leaving at least a question mark over Shen’s legitimacy in office.

The seriousness of the situation is magnified by Shen’s position. Since 2012, he has served as the president of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, a body organized under the auspices of the Communist Party and responsible for the appointment of bishops under a Chinese law which doesn’t formally recognize a role for the Vatican in the episcopal appointment process at all.

Shen’s rogue transfer to lead the Shanghai diocese, then, was a move the bishop himself had to at least rubber stamp — if not push for in the first place. Indeed, many local clergy believe Shen arranged his own transfer out of the relatively small and provincial Diocese of Haimen to Shanghai as a matter of status over his role as president of the BCCCC.

The Vatican leaving open the question of Shen’s legitimacy then, isn’t simply a matter of fudging an awkward episcopal appointment. It casts into question the communion with Rome of the individual legally responsible for episcopal appointments in China. 

By analogy, if the USCCB president, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, effected his own transfer, without reference to the pope, from the U.S. military ordinariate to a vacant diocese he thought more befitting of his status, it would be almost universally seen as an act of schism. 

But that is what Shen appears to have done.

China is, of course, not the United States, and even locals critical of Shen’s move have noted that he is seen as “a capable man, who believes the faith” who “recognizes the reality of life in China means that … you want room to maneuver for the good of the faithful.”

But local clergy seem less interested in the political nuances of their situation, and more concerned about the ecclesiological significance of what’s happening in their diocese. As one told The Pillar on Tuesday: “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.”

To what degree diocesan clergy owe their obedience to an effectively self-appointed bishop, without a Vatican mandate, is, at best, open to question. 

But the level of local disaffection to the state-affiliated hierarchy, if not open hostility, is becoming harder to for Vatican officials to ignore — or would be, if those officials were getting their information first-hand, instead of through the press.

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While the fact of Shen’s appointment without a papal mandate seems to have been clearly acknowledged by both sides, the actual canonical status of his office remains murky.

The actual terms of the Vatican-China deal remain unknown, so it is impossible to judge the extent to which his self-authorized transfer to Shanghai violated either the text or, as Beijing has now called it, the “spirit” of the agreement. 

It is possible the actual accord is worded in such a way as to give appointments like Shen’s the presumption of validity, even without papal approval. 

And it could be that the text is deliberately worded vaguely, to allow the point to be argued either way, as the deal’s few defenders, mostly in the Anglophone blogosphere, will likely point out.

But if that is the case, it would suggest the current problems were anticipated by Vatican diplomats and they decided to go ahead with an agreement with a party they knew was likely to act in bad faith. If that is the case, it would seem to confirm the worst criticisms of the Vatican-China deal: that it was, from the beginning, an exercise in cynical realpolitik, not evangelical optimism.

Among local Chinese Catholics, the sense is increasingly that the finer points of diplomacy are irrelevant. To them, the “spirit” of the Vatican-China deal is clear, and clearly in favor of the Chinese Communist Party having the first, last, and increasingly only say over what happens in the local Church.

That situation, local priests say, was exactly what the Vatican-China deal was supposed to prevent.

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