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“The Chinese government wants to keep control over the Catholic Church”

Yves Chiron is a historian and journalist, specialist in the contemporary history of the Catholic Church.

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“The Chinese government wants to keep control over the Catholic Church”

Yves Chiron is a historian and journalist, specialist in the contemporary history of the Catholic Church. In 2019, he published The Long March of the Catholics of China with Artège editions.

LE FIGARO.- The Catholic Church in China is divided between the institution recognized by the Chinese Communist Party and the so-called “underground” community, faithful to Rome. What ties do the two communities have today?

Yves CHIRON.- The division dates back to 1957 when the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics (APCC) was created, an organization of priests and Catholics subject to the Chinese Communist Party. The following year, the APCC decided to appoint and consecrate bishops without the consent of the Holy See. It was a question of making the Catholic Church "autonomous", that is to say independent of Rome, financially and jurisdictionally. It was also a question of creating a kind of national Church which agrees to contribute to the construction of the “socialist” society.

From that time two Catholic communities coexisted: one around the new bishops not recognized by Rome and under the dependence of the APCC, which will be commonly called the Patriotic Church or the Official Church; the other around the bishops who remained in communion with the Holy See, which will be called the underground Church because it refused to join the APCC and therefore was no longer authorized by the Chinese authorities.

Over the decades, the Patriotic Church has consecrated dozens of bishops not recognized by the Holy See, therefore schismatics, and the Underground Church has consecrated dozens of bishops not recognized by the Chinese government but in communion with Rome .

John Paul II, Benedict XVI and then Pope Francis worked for the reconciliation of the two “Churches”. Schismatic bishops reconciled with the Holy See. In 2007, Benedict XVI demanded that the underground Church no longer consecrate bishops; in 2018, Pope Francis lifted the excommunication that still hit seven schismatic bishops. But the situation remains difficult. There are still dozens of clandestine bishops who are not recognized by the Chinese authorities, the same goes for thousands of priests and nuns. They may at any time be prevented from exercising their ministry or their apostolate.

What is the "Sinicization" policy of the Catholic Church in China?

“Sinicization” (zhongguohua in Chinese) is a concept coined by future President Xi Jinping in 2011. At the time, he was still only Vice President of the People's Republic of China. He then applied it to Marxism, believing that the effort to adapt Marxism to Chinese culture and mentality initiated by Mao Zedong should be continued.

Since 2015 he has been applying this concept to the religions present in China. When it comes to Christianity, it's not China that has to adapt to Christianity, it's Christianity that has to adapt to Chinese culture and civilization. He spoke of the "five transformations" that must be implemented, particularly on constructions (churches must "adopt Chinese architectural styles") and religious education (one must "indigenize theology by contextualizing sermons"). The APCC, which we have mentioned, has drawn up a plan for the “sinicization” of Catholicism, to comply with the watchwords of President Xi Jinping.

Is Hong Kong Bishop Chow's visit to Beijing historic?

It is an important event, but perhaps not historic. There have been precedents. In 1985, for the first time since the Chinese revolution, the then bishop of Hong Kong, Msgr. Wu Cheng-chung, was able to visit mainland China. Hong Kong was then a territory under English sovereignty. It was the first time since the communist revolution of 1949 that a Chinese bishop in communion with Rome could come to communist China.

Since that date, the diocese of Hong Kong has endeavored to "build a bridge", that is to say, to establish regular relations between the Catholics of mainland China and the universal Church. But it is certain that Bishop Chow's visit to Beijing is not insignificant.

What is the relationship between Bishop Joseph Li Shan, the president of the Patriotic Association of Catholics of China, and Rome?

Bishop Li Shan's position is ambiguous. He comes from an old Catholic family in the Chinese capital. He was ordained a priest by Bishop Fu Tieshan, a “patriotic” bishop of Beijing who never sought reconciliation with the Holy See. Bishop Li Shan was consecrated bishop in 2007 to succeed him and, in a new development for this diocese, he was appointed with the approval of both the Chinese authorities and the Holy See.

He is a bishop who has not given rise to rumors of corruption, like others. He exercises his ministry as a pastor who cares about his faithful, but he also endeavors to maintain good relations with the Chinese authorities. This is how he accepted last year, in August 2022, to become president of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics (APCC). This association has never been recognized by the Holy See. It is clearly subservient to the objectives of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government.

In practice, this appointment had few consequences, because the decision-making power of the APCC is weak. The fate of the Catholic Church, like that of all other religious denominations present in China, depends above all on the Bureau of Religious Affairs, a state body that reports to the government.

What is the 2018 agreement between the Vatican and Rome all about?

The 2018 Agreement is provisional and secret. Provisional because it was signed for two years, renewed in 2020, and renewed again in 2022. It is secret because the text has not been published by either party. What is certain is that it mainly concerns the appointment of bishops. The agreement stipulates that the government proposes candidates for the episcopate and that the Pope decides in the last instance.

When it was signed, about forty dioceses in China were without a titular. On the side of the Holy See, this agreement was primarily aimed at remedying this situation. On the side of Beijing, it is a question of controlling as much as possible the organization of the Catholic Church and the appointment of the episcopal hierarchy.

Is this agreement now null and void?

No, but he experienced two serious problems in a few months. Last November, Bishop Peng Weizhao, Bishop of Yujiang, was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Jiangxi. Then at the beginning of this month of April, Bishop Shen Bin, Bishop of Haimen, was appointed Bishop of Shanghai. In both cases, these appointments were made without the agreement of the Holy See and without the approval of Pope Francis. These transfers, decided by the Chinese authorities alone, are in flagrant violation of the 2018 agreement.

This is one more sign that the Chinese government wants to keep as much control as possible over the Catholic Church. At the same time, the pressures on the "underground" Catholic communities do not cease: churches are destroyed or closed, priests and faithful are arrested, bishops loyal to Rome but not recognized by the government are placed under house arrest or exiled to other other provinces.

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