China-Vatican relations

Vatican and Beijing near deal on appointment of bishops, Hong Kong cardinal says

Followers should accept agreement as ‘the lesser of two evils’, John Tong Hon urges

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 February, 2017, 11:51pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 12:15pm

Beijing and the Vatican have reached an initial consensus over the appointment of bishops on the mainland, removing a key ­obstacle to the normalisation of ties, Cardinal John Tong Hon said.

The head of Hong Kong’s Catholic Church said the pope would remain the final authority in appointing mainland bishops. If a deal was finalised, the role of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic ­Association – the sole state-backed Catholic body on the mainland – would change significantly, he said.

Both Beijing and the Vatican gain from improved relationship

Tong, writing in the Sunday Examiner weekly, also sought to address criticism the Vatican should proceed cautiously in ­improving ties with a state that limits religious freedom, saying such concerns should not stand in the way of their relationship.

Beijing and Vatican broke off diplomatic ties in 1951, creating a schism ­between mainland Catholics who acknowledged the pope’s spiritual authority and those who were members of state-approved churches.

But Pope Francis has been ­trying to heal the rift, sanctioning a working group to resolve obstacles, including the appointment of bishops.

The resumption of dialogue between China and the Vatican suggests Beijing has made changes to its policy on the ­Catholic Church.

In a 3,443-word article giving his views on the state of talks, Tong said: “Beijing will ... recognise the pope’s right of veto and that the pope is the highest and final authority in deciding on the candidates for bishops in China.”

The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association would no longer have self-nomination and self-ordination of bishops, he said.

The association might reorient itself “to encourage clergy and faithful to carry out social charities, actively start social services, and work on things of social interest”, he wrote.

Tong said Beijing was more concerned about the patriotism of bishops than their love of the church, but Catholic churches on the mainland had no political aspirations and Chinese catholics were patriotic.

An agreement on bishops would enhance trust between the two sides and alleviate government suspicions that bishops from unofficial churches were “opposition”.

“From now on, there will be no more the crisis of a division between the open and underground communities in the church in China,” Tong said.

“The church in China will work together to preach the gospel of Jesus on the land of China.”

On the seven mainland ­bishops who had been ordained without the consent of the Vatican, Tong said they had written to the pope and were willing to seek forgiveness.

Addressing concerns over the Vatican’s involvement with a state that restricts freedom of worship, Tong said allowing the pope to ­appoint bishops was an “essential freedom”.

Ensuring churches could spread their faith, run schools and own properties was important, but the church needed to decide whether to embrace essential freedom first, and later strive for complete freedom, he said.

Two Chinese bishops recognised by Vatican ordained on the mainland

“In fact, the moral principle of the church teaches us to choose the lesser of two evils,” Tong said.

“Therefore, under the teaching of the principle of healthy realism that Pope Francis teaches us, it is clear which path the Catholic Church in China ought to take.”

A mainland Catholic said Tong’s comments raised concerns over whether the Vatican had compromised its principles to reach a deal with Beijing.

But Anthony Lam Sui-ki, executive secretary and researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre of the Hong Kong Diocese, viewed the matter differently.

“[Tong] suggested Catholics on the mainland should try their best to do anything they can, not just wait for the Chinese authorities to give you entire freedom, because it’s impractical,” he said.

Estimates of the number of mainland Catholics vary from eight to 12 million, with most belonging to official churches.

Additional reporting by Minnie Chan