China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2019/Jul

Contradictions at the top?

Catholics outside of China are baffled by an apparent contradiction about the religious policy towards the Catholic Church between different departments in the top echelons of the Chinese government.

Readers will recall that on 22 September 2018, The Vatican and China signed a Provisional Agreement regarding the appointment of bishops. The signatories to the agreement were two persons: from the Holy See’s side, Monsignor Antoine Camilleri and from China’s side, Wang Chao, both deputy foreign ministers.

As a gesture of good will, and not as part of the agreement itself, Pope Francis normalised the situations of seven Chinese bishops, who had received ordination as bishops without the Holy Father’s approval. The contents of the agreement itself were not made public (which adds to the semi-mysteriousness of the whole affair).

While not specifically mentioning the agreement, the official magazine of the Patriotic Association and the Chinese Bishops Conference, Zhongguo Tianzhujiao (Catholic Church in China), in its last two issues (nos. 5 and 6) of 2018, to its credit, did not use the phrase “the self-election and self-consecration of bishops” in describing its work.

In fact, Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin, on 18 December 2018, at a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the consecration of the first self-elected, self-consecrated bishops (1958), when one would expect the use of that phrase, only said that the Chinese Church would “earnestly carry out its work in the new circumstances” (CCIC, No. 6, p. 4).

Bishop Ma himself was one of the Chinese bishops, whose situation had been normalised the previous September. Issue No. 5 of Catholic Church in China (inside front cover) had pictures of the two Chinese bishops who attended the Bishops Synod on Youth in Rome in October 2018. Bishop Ma’s reference to “new circumstances” was most likely an allusion to the Provisional Agreement.

However, the problem of a possible contradiction between different government departments came to a head in the spring of this year when the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) began an earnest drive to register clergy as members of the Catholic Patriotic Association.

Registration had been taking place already for many years but it was given impetus with the implementation of New Regulations regarding Religion, which came into effect on 1 February 2018. However, the registration drive seems to have intensified further after a commentary on the Sinicization of religions by SARA director, Wang Zuo’an, was published on 26 March 2019.

Regarding the Catholic Church, Wang reportedly wrote: “Catholics must be led to ‘steadfastly adhere to the principle of independence, autonomy and self-government,” to develop research on the Sinicisation of theological thinking, to advance the democratic leadership of the Church and to ‘actively and consistently carry out the self-election and consecration of bishops. Members of the underground are to be ‘educated and transformed’ and any ‘interference and subversion by foreign forces’ is to be prevented.” (reported in Religion and Christianity in Today’s China, Vol IX, 2019, No. 2, p. 7).

Thus the phrase “the self-election and self-consecration of bishops” again raises its ugly head, as if the Provisional Agreement had never been signed.

In fact, Wang Meixiu, a scholar of the Catholic Church in China at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences stated explicitly to UCANews: “This ‘shows that the government has kept its policies unchanged after signing the provisional agreement on bishops’ appointments’ with the Vatican.’” (Ibid. P.7)

Indeed, Bernardo Cevellera, director of, in a commentary published on his website on 25 June 2019 points to China’s policy towards the Church in China as travelling “on two parallel tracks,” each having little to do with the other. One is “to applaud friendship with Pope Francis,” and the other is “to stifle and eliminate the local Church to make it independent from the Vatican” (, June 25, p.2).

He cites the example of Bishop Vincenzo Guo Xijin, auxiliary bishop of Mindong, who had stepped down as ordinary of Mindong in favour of the newly legitimised Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu. Bishop Zhan had apparently asked Bishop Guo to receive the renewal of vows of religious sisters, but the local Fujian government would not allow it. So, Bishop Guo withdrew his application for registration, saying he did not want to be a monkey, jerked here and there, at the beck and call of others.

People may ask: what has a sisters’ vow-taking ceremony got to do with the government? Isn’t that an internal Church matter? Bishop Guo had shown his good will and cooperation by accepting to be the auxiliary bishop. Why should he be prevented from presiding over an internal Church ceremony?

In the same article, Cervellera lists many other restrictive measures the government has placed on the Catholic Church in Fujian, such as do not contact or welcome foreigners (including overseas Chinese); do not accept invitations to conferences abroad; do not organise education courses for minors, in the absence of permits, pastoral groups and choirs cannot hold public events; and under the pretext of visiting the sick, do not evangelise in public places, such as hospitals (Ibid., p.2).

In some places crosses have been removed, or church buildings have been completely torn down and church activities, such as summer camps and catechism classes for the youth, have been cancelled.

Is there then a rift in the government between personnel in the Foreign Ministry and the officials who oversee religious affairs? With the Holy See, after the agreement, having a say in the appointment of bishops, do the religious affairs officials feel left out? That is hard to say.

What we do know is that individual priests, especially those from the unofficial Church, feel under a lot of pressure when they are called to register with the government. They have questions like: will I have to sign a statement that is against Catholic doctrine, which according to my conscience I do not agree with? Will I be asked to support the independent administration of the Church? (the usual meaning of which is separation from the pope)? Will I be asked to support the self-election and self-consecration of bishops? Will I be asked to join the Patriotic Association?

Thus individual priests, both above and below ground, feel under a lot of pressure at this time.

It is for these reasons that the Holy See, on June 28, in its daily Bulletin, issued Pastoral guidelines of the Holy See concerning the civil registration of clergy in China. In the first paragraph, the Holy See states the reason for the necessity of the guidelines: pastors are disturbed because invariably the signing of such a registration document requires the acceptance of “the principle of independence, autonomy and self-administration of the Church in China.”

The Bulletin calls for respect for the consciences of the clergy involved. The guidelines present four reasons why this should be the case: 1. The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees religious freedom; 2. The Provisional Agreement of 22 September 2018 acknowledges the role of the successor of St. Peter as the leader of the Holy See, and that the independence of Chinese Catholic Church does not mean “in the absolute sense as separation from the Pope, but is relative to the political sphere, as not making the local Church an alien body in the society and culture of the country where she lives and works;” 3. The situation of relations between China and the Holy See is not the same as it was in the 1950s, but is now characterised by dialogue; and 4. All the Chinese bishops have now been reconciled with the Successor of Peter and are in full communion with the Apostolic See. (Pastoral guidelines, p. 1).

In conclusion, the Holy See’s Bulletin asks that the civil registration of the clergy be respectful of Catholic doctrine and of the consciences of those involved and “that no intimidatory pressures be applied to the ‘non-official’ Catholic communities, as, unfortunately, has already happened.” (Ibid., p. 2).

Fortunately we have an example from the first century Church, which may be helpful in finding a solution to the problems between Church and state in the present 21st century. It is related in chapter five of The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. It might be helpful to officials whose job it is to deal with religion in any country in the world.

In the 50s of the first century, Peter and some other apostles were called before the Jewish Sanhedrin, a kind of Jewish “House of Representatives” to be questioned about their preaching about Jesus in the Temple.

I take up the story at verse 27: “When they had brought them in and made them stand before the Sanhedrin, the high priest questioned them, ‘We gave you strict orders to stop teaching in that name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.’ But Peter and the apostles said in reply, ‘We must obey God rather than men…..When they heard this, they became infuriated and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee in the Sanhedrin named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up, ordered the men to be put outside for a short time, and said to them, ‘Fellow Israelites, some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be someone important, and about 400 men joined him, but he was killed, and all those who were loyal to him were disbanded and came to nothing. After him came Judas the Galilean at the time of the census. He also drew people after him, but he too perished and all who were loyal to him were scattered. So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavour or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.’” (Acts, 5:27-39).

Let us keep the Church in China in our prayers.