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According to some news reports, the Diocese of Shanghai will see a new bishop installed as its leader on Tuesday. If it does, it will be the first appointment of a diocesan bishop for the mainland since 2021. 

REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

The prospective move comes amid ongoing tension between Rome and Beijing over the appointment of bishops — with the Chinese government seeming to nominate bishops and announce their appointment without the required approval of the Vatican. That issue, which was supposed to be solved by a 2018 Vatican-Beijing bilateral agreement, has seemed to become more acute in recent years, not less.

Against that backdrop, any appointment for Shanghai will raise immediate questions about who named the new head of the diocese, by what process, and with whose assent — and all the more so for an actual episcopal installation. 

According to the usually well-sourced website AsiaNews, an invitation has been recently sent to diocesan priests to attend the installation of the new leader of the Diocese of Shanghai. The invitation does not name the new bishop, who will apparently be unveiled at the event.

The website speculates that the new diocesan bishop could be Bishop Joseph Shen Bin, currently the Bishop of Haimen, who has reportedly been seen in Shanghai in recent days. 

At a state-sponsored conference in 2022, Shen was elected as head of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, a body organized under the auspices of the Communist Party, and charged with the appointment of new bishops according to a Chinese state law which does not recognize the Vatican’s diplomatic accord with Beijing on the appointment of bishops. 

Sources close to the Vatican Secretariat of State were, as of Monday, unable to confirm any pending appointment for Shanghai — though it would not be unusual for such an installation to take place without Vatican knowledge or acknowledgement. 

But even if no official comment or confirmation does come — before, or even immediately after — a predicted installation on Tuesday, an appointment in Shanghai would speak volumes about the status quo between the Vatican and Beijing.

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 was first announced, several episcopal installations in China have taken place without prior announcement and without being acknowledged in the Vatican’s daily bollettino of appointments. 

In some cases, the Vatican subsequently issued statements saying the candidate had been approved by the pope months previously, though did not give a reason for why no announcement had been made. 

Those announcements were, according to Vatican insiders, an exercise in damage limitation by the Holy See and a desire to keep the Vatican-China deal in theoretical operation, even as external criticism mounted over human rights abuses and religious persecution of Catholics in China.

But last year, the Vatican was forced to express its “surprise and regret” after Bishop John Peng Weizhao resigned his office as Bishop of Yuijang and took up a role as auxiliary bishop in Jiangxi — a diocese which the Vatican does not recognize as existing at all but was created by the Communist authorities out of five other dioceses.

After that event, the Holy See’s senior diplomat, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said in a surprisingly frank interview that while the Vatican’s intention was “to get the best deal possible” in China, “certainly this agreement is not the best deal possible because of the other party.”

Gallagher, who is the Holy See’s secretary for relations with states — essentially its chief foreign affairs minister — also acknowledged last month that “It was always going to be difficult; it was always going to be used by the Chinese party to bring greater pressure on the Catholic community, particularly on the so-called underground Church,” while conceding that  “we can only achieve so much.” 

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“So we just go forward,” the diplomat said, while noting that, despite the problems created by Bishop Peng’s assignment to a diocese the Vatican does not recognize as existing, “there are negotiations underway for the appointment of other bishops.”

If a new Bishop of Shanghai is announced Tuesday, the Vatican’s response will likely offer a glimpse into the progress and good faith of those negotiations.

If, for example, Bishop Shen is formally installed in Shanghai and, at the same time, the announcement is carried in the morning Vatican bollettino, it could be offered as proof of progress by the Holy See — evidence that Vatican officials were at least involved enough in the appointment to recognize the bishop’s installation in real time.

But if the installation does go ahead and the Vatican only issues its own acknowledgment some days later, after press inquiries, its officials will still claim the appointment as the latest example of the Vatican-China deal “working.” 

That would, however, mean accepting a heavily qualified definition of the deal “working,” in which China could seemingly appoint bishops at will and expect the Holy See to sign off (before or after the fact) — so long as Beijing steers clear of erecting and suppressing whole dioceses to suit the Chinese government’s preferences.

It’s equally possible that any news coming out of Shanghai will be met by a diplomatic silence from the Vatican, or even a new expression of “surprise and regret” — though that would be something of a nuclear option, and a more or less public confirmation that Rome has totally lost control of the Chinese episcopate. 

There is one final possibility: that nothing happens on Tuesday at all.

Given that invitations to the event have reportedly been already sent to the diocesan clergy, spiking a publicly anticipated event would be an unprecedented climb down for Beijing. 

Chinese authorities could, of course, save face by saying the initial reports touting a new installation were wrong to begin with. But if a reportedly planned episcopal installation is stopped, that would be seen as a huge coup for the Vatican’s bid to get Sino-Roman relations back on something like an equal footing.

That slim possibility notwithstanding, the most likely outcome would seem to be the Vatican having to spin, again, that things aren’t really as bad as they seem with its China deal, and hailing as progress anything that it doesn’t absolutely have to acknowledge as an obvious subversion of the Holy See’s authority.

But with as senior an official as Gallagher having already admitted frankly that this is a bad deal, getting worse, it will be increasingly difficult for the Vatican to make anything like a credible case for its engagement with Beijing.

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Editor’s note: This report initially identified Archbishop Paul Gallagher as “Kevin” Gallagher. The error has been corrected.

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