Church’s involvement in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is considered a ‘challenging factor’ in the talks

UCA News reporter, Hong Kong

Updated: June 29, 2020 10:29 AM GMT

As the two-year agreement between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops expires in September, officials of the Catholic Church and the Chinese Communist Party are to meet in July to discuss its renewal, a top church official said.

The agreement signed on Sept. 22, 2018, was considered a breakthrough as it was the first joint agreement in almost seven decades after the Vatican and China severed diplomatic relations in 1951.

“China believes that the provisional agreement should be continued. The two sides will start negotiations on a renewal of the agreement in July,” said a top-ranking church official who declined to be named.

“The two sides should meet. It should take place in Rome. July is very realistic and possible.” 

Since the last such meeting took place in Beijing last July, “it is logical that the next talks could take place in Rome in July,” he explained.

He said China preferred to keep the agreement secret and for two years, so it should remain that way.

He said China would benefit the most if the agreement were to continue because “it would help its international reputation. For the Church, the only issue is the illegal appointment of bishops, which divides the Church.”

The deal agreed to appoint bishops by mutual consultation and agreement. “But this has not happened since the agreement. The bishops currently consecrated were all bishops appointed before the agreement,” the source said.

The source also said that China-Vatican relations are “not as good as people think. China did not call Pope Francis when it invited some other national leaders to support its fight against the epidemic” of Covid-19.

Agreement excludes Hong Kong, Macau

The China-Vatican agreement does not include the appointment of bishops in Hong Kong and Macau, two former colonies that have become autonomous administrative regions under China.

Hong Kong Diocese was without a bishop for more 17 months after the death of Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung on Jan. 3, 2019.

But the agreement only deals with mainland China and has nothing to do with Hong Kong and Macau, said Cardinal John Tong, Hong Kong’s present apostolic administrator.

The Vatican appointed Cardinal Tong, former bishop of Hong Kong, as apostolic administrator on Jan. 5, 2019, just two days after the death of Bishop Yeung.

Church laws allow the college of consultors in each diocese to elect a diocesan administrator to temporarily govern the diocese within eight days of the death of its bishop. The Vatican did not wait for this to happen in the case of Hong Kong in 2019.

In June last year, the Vatican completed a consultation on a bishop’s choice but did not appoint a bishop.

The selection of a bishop for Hong Kong was already well advanced before the pro-democracy movement started last June. The Chinese administration sees the campaign as a rebellion against the mainland, the source said.

Division in Hong Kong Church

With some clerics including Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha and Cardinal Joseph Zen openly supporting the pro-democracy movement, the Church in Hong Kong is divided into pro-government and anti-government factions.

The Vatican had already decided on a bishop but had to change its mind in view of the changed situation. “The Vatican is waiting for the right opportunity to announce the new bishop of Hong Kong,” the church source said.

He said if the pope appoints someone supportive of the pro-democracy movement, the Vatican will be accused of being at war with China. In the other scenario, the Vatican will be projected as being afraid of Beijing. “It is a critical decision,” he said.

In the interests of the Hong Kong Church, the churchmen should not plunge the territory into a political crisis.

A church observer who asked not to be named said that although the Vatican-China agreement does not include Hong Kong, the Church’s involvement in the pro-democracy movement will be a “challenging factor” in the upcoming negotiations.

“If Hong Kong is not a factor in negotiations, why was the Vatican in such a hurry when Bishop Yeung died? It even interfered with the diocese’s legal right to elect its administrator,” noted the church observer

He said the Vatican did not anticipate the death of Bishop Yeung, the pro-democracy movement and the change in international diplomacy towards China in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Under the changed circumstances, it is understandable that the pope should change his preferred candidate. The new candidate should be a person to end the division within the Diocese of Hong Kong gradually,” the observer said.

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