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The Holy See announced on Saturday that Pope Francis has formally recognized Bishop Joseph Shen Bin as head of the Shanghai diocese. The move comes three months after Chinese authorities announced Shen’s transfer from the Diocese of Haimen. 

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Peitro Parolin. Credit: Vatican News via YouTube.

The Vatican’s recognition is the latest sanation by Rome of a canonically illegal move by the Communist Party controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which has exerted increasingly unilateral control over episcopal appointments in the country, even since the signing of a 2018 deal between the Holy See and Beijing. 

That deal was meant to unify the state-sponsored hierarchy with Rome and regularize the status of the country’s underground Catholic Church.

The Vatican’s Saturday announcement of Shen’s papal “appointment” to Shanghai was accompanied by an interview with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, explaining the decision. 

While Parolin attempted to frame the Shen decision in positive terms, the cardinal effectively conceded the runaway status of the Church in China, and Rome’s minimal stake in its governance. 

Recognizing the bleak situation, and the relatively weak diplomatic hand the Holy See holds at the negotiating table, Parolin also laid out a series of goals to strengthen Vatican-China ties on the appointments process. 

But are those goals actually a means for resurrecting Vatican participation in Chinese episcopal appointments — or do they actually telegraph a coming set of further concessions by Rome to Beijing?


‘Dispensing’ with consensus

Bishop Shen took possession of the Shanghai diocese illicitly in April, after he effectively transferred himself to the see from the Diocese of Haimen, with state backing.

In his interview with Vatican state media on Saturday, Cardinal Parolin acknowledged that “the Catholic faithful, not only in China, have the right to be properly informed” about the situation, and the Holy See’s reasoning for accepting Shen effective usurpation of the Shanghai see as for “greater good of the diocese.”

While Parolin praised Shen as an “esteemed pastor,” a characterization even local critics of his appointment have conceded, the cardinal acknowledged that Shen’s arrival in the diocese was part of a pattern of appointments that “seems 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.”

Parolin called it “indispensable” “that all episcopal appointments in China, including transfers, be made by consensus, as agreed.” 

But, as the cardinal seemed to recognize, the reality is that Beijing has dispensed with exactly that consensus. 

Since the deal came into force, several bishops have been named to mainland sees by Chinese authorities, without apparent Vatican approval. 

Even more worryingly for the Vatican, and more problematic from a canonical perspective, Beijing has even moved to create its own dioceses, outside of Church recognition, and effectively suppress others erected by the Holy See in the process.

While the Vatican has not yet formally accepted the creation of the diocese of Jiangxi, Parolin predicted in his interview a “just and wise” solution in due course. But, given the usurpation of the Shanghai diocese by Shen has been accepted in the name of the “greater good of the diocese,” and the Vatican has never yet persuaded Beijing to walk back an illegal Church appointment, it seems only a matter of time before Rome caves to the reality on the ground there, too.

Parolin called continued dialogue between the Vatican and China “a rather obligatory path” while expressing the hope that further “fluid and fruitful” communication can “prevent disharmonious situations that create disagreements and misunderstandings.”

Disagreements have arisen, and likely will continue to arise, but the near-universal consensus among Catholics in China and at the Vatican Secretariat of State seems to be that far from “misunderstanding” each other, Beijing’s position is entirely clear: that it can and will continue to make unilateral episcopal appointments, regardless of the plain text of the deal they signed in 2018 and have renewed twice since.

From ends to means

While being as frank as diplomatically possible about the state of relations with China, and the state of the Holy See’s controversial and now, it seems, practically defunct deal with Beijing on appointing bishops by mutual consent, Parolin went on to outline a range of goals which he said would strengthen relations and help prevent future “disagreements.”

Key among these were, according to Vatican News, “the creation of an Episcopal Conference” for China, and “the opening of an established liaison office of the Holy See in China,” both of which, the cardinal said, would enhance communication and communion between the Chinese bishops and the Holy Father.

These measures, Parolin said “would not only favor dialogue with the civil authorities, but also contribute to full reconciliation within the Chinese Church and its journey towards a desirable normality.”

The cardinal went on to note that underground Catholics in the country continue to be treated with suspicion by the government, even though, he stressed, “they sincerely want to be loyal citizens and be respected in their conscience and in their faith.”

The persecution of underground Catholics by the Chinese government is a reality which the Vatican understandably wants to mitigate, so far as it can. And most people familiar with the pressures facing local faithful can understand the Vatican’s continued desire to insist that you can be faithfully Catholic and a loyal citizen.

But rather than offering a kind of advanced path to better relations, Parolin’s next steps will strike many as a calculated march of further surrender to Beijing’s demands.

For a start, while the cardinal spoke Saturday of the need to create a Chinese bishops’ conference, it should be noted that such a body already exists — albeit exclusively within the CPCA, and under the immediate oversight of the Communist Party.

Indeed, the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China is recognized in Chinese domestic law as the sole body with the power to appoint bishops in the country (with government approval). More to the point, its current president is none other than Bishop Shen — his move to Shanghai was widely interpreted in April as a kind of necessary self-promotion to a larger diocese, in order to reflect his position of importance within the state church apparatus. 

On the evidence of the last five years, it is hard to envision the Vatican persuading Beijing to erect a separate episcopal body, outside the CPCA and CCP control, or to see the CPCA’s episcopal conference replaced with a legitimately erected one. 

The overwhelming likelihood, instead, is that Parolin’s ambition to “create” an episcopal conference for China will follow the current trend of Rome eventually agreeing to what is already a fait accompli on the ground — in this case by accepting and legitimizing BCCCC.

The extent to which that would represent for Rome “a journey towards a desirable normality,” as Parolin put it on Saturday, is open to interpretation. 

But what would appear clear is this: Any future official recognition of the BCCCC by Rome would serve to further legitimize Shen’s position, and the means by which he got there. It would also be seen by most as a vindication of the Beijing government’s decision to invest the BCCCC with legal authority to appoint bishops without a role for the pope in the process in the first place.

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Similarly, Parolin’s ambition to open a “liaison office of the Holy See in China” may come dressed in the language of “favoring dialogue with the civil authorities” but will sound to most observers like the first step to an embassy on the mainland.

The reestablishment of diplomatic relations with China has been a long treasured ambition at the Secretariat of State, ever since 1951, when the Church was officially expelled from the mainland by the Communist government.

Apart from the Chinese government’s domestic record of religious persecution, human rights abuses and genocide against its own peoples, a key sticking point in the resumption of formal diplomatic relations has been the Vatican’s continued recognition of the Republic of China, Taiwan.

The Holy See is the only remaining European government, and the most senior international diplomatic power to maintain bilateral relations with Taiwan, after a decades-long campaign by Beijing to delegitimize the island nation’s democratic government and force nation states and international bodies to choose between relations with the mainland and the island.

Since the signing of the Vatican-China deal in 2018, there have been signs of a cooling in Vatican diplomatic support for Taiwan, including the failure to appoint a new head of mission to the nunciature on the island.

While the Vatican might hope that a stable liaison office on the mainland could facilitate better collaboration with the Chinese government, many will see the prospect as fanciful, given the CCP’s behavior towards Rome so far. 

The chances, however, that the Holy See will be made to pay a further diplomatic price for even opening such an office are much higher — and the cost would likely fall on Taiwan.

Short term goals, long term plans

Defenders of the Parolin’s continued faith in engagement with China, and with the 2018 deal, would suggest, perhaps with some justification, that the Vatican has few other available options open to it.

Parolin spoke of continued cooperation with Beijing as “rather obligatory,” and in that he may have a point. While the unilateral appointment of bishops and the erection of dioceses by the CPCA/BCCCC, under government auspices, represent acts of schism, canonically speaking, for the Vatican to declare them to be so would likely carry consequences every bit as historic as the deal itself was meant to be.

For a start, declaring a Chinese bishop (or even diocese) to be formally separated from the Holy See would effectively be to revert the Church in China to the status quo ante of 2017. While many would consider that to be a frank, even necessary acknowledgment of reality, it would also signify the titanic failure of years of patient diplomacy and a high price in sunk diplomatic costs.

More importantly, it could also bring immediate and potentially severe repercussions for Chinese Catholics who are, as Parolin noted over the weekend, still considered a suspect class in a totalitarian state.

But if there are understandable reasons why the Vatican finds itself in a diplomatic corner over its China deal, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Parolin’s proposed next steps lead anywhere good, or soon.

The Communist regime in China faces a number of internal pressures, including a well-documented demographic time bomb, and considerable economic headwinds. Faced with considerable social unrest over his covid pandemic policies too, Chinese president Xi Jinping has acted recently to shore up his position as leader for life, and often deployed bullish nationalistic rhetoric, often aimed at Western culture and values, to appeal for national cohesion. 

If that trend continues in the medium term, it’s not immediately clear what space, if any, there is for the Church to advance the overarching priority, articulated by Parolin, of evangelizing in China. 

Longer term, perhaps after Xi, China faces one of two possible futures in which the Communist Party either collapses out of government, in some kind of replay of the fall of the Soviet Union, or it reinvents its leadership again to continue its grip on power.

In the case of the latter outcome, the current course charted by Vatican diplomats seems set to leave the Holy See with — at best — only nominal influence over the Church in China, and gradually accede to the creeping recognition of a practically independent Communist Catholic Church of China.

In the case of the former event, and the demise of one-party rule in the country, Cardinal Joseph Zen has previously warned that the Vatican’s perceived cooperation with a repressive regime leaves the Church badly positioned to flourish in a post-Communist society.

The problem Rome now faces is that its supposedly long-term plan for deepening relations with Beijing don’t appear to point to any good outcome in the long run. Instead, for all its diplomatic rhetoric about “historic” progress, the Holy See increasingly looks locked in a cycle of crisis management and immediate damage limitation.

While Cardinal Parolin cannot reasonably be expected to say so out loud, the Vatican’s options appear to have narrowed down to two: accepting Chinese state control of the local Church, or admitting the defeat of their diplomatic efforts to make a good faith partner of Beijing.

Either choice likely means a sad, though perhaps inevitable, defeat for the Holy See.

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