A group of influential Catholics published an open letter on Monday warning that a potential deal between the Vatican and the Chinese government could cause irreparable harm.

The two sides are reportedly close to a deal over the appointment of bishops after several years of negotiation.

While the Vatican maintains the global right to appoint bishops, Beijing has appointed its own through the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) – the country’s party-controlled official church.

If a deal is reached, it could lead to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, which were severed in 1951. The agreement is also expected to give recognition to seven Beijing-appointed bishops in what would be a significant concession on the part of the Holy See in its long-running standoff with the Communist Party.

The 15 major figures wrote to Catholic bishops across the world, saying that the Chinese government should play no part in the selection of bishops. They said that the moral integrity of the seven “illicitly ordained” bishops was “questionable.”

“If they were to be recognized as legitimate, the faithful in Greater China would be plunged into confusion and pain, and schism would be created in the Church in China,” the letter said.

Its authors include university professors, lecturers, researchers, human rights activists and lawyers, most of them from Hong Kong. They also started a global online petition, which over 800 people have signed as of Tuesday.

”In Full: An Open Letter to Conferences of Catholic Bishops Across the World“

Regarding the Possible Agreement Between the Holy See and the Government of the People’s Republic of China

Your Eminence and Most Reverend,

We are a group of Catholics. Recently there has been news reports indicating that the Holy See and the government of the People’s Republic of China will soon reach an agreement over the issue of bishop appointment, as well as recognition of seven illicit “bishops”. We are deeply shocked and disappointed. With our love and allegiance to the Holy Mother Church, we hope you and the bishops conferences would pay attention to such development.

According to the teachings of the Holy Mother Church, bishops are the successors of the Apostles, bearing the duties of leading and tending the flock: “The Church is apostolic. She is built on a lasting foundation: “the twelve apostles of the Lamb” ( Rev 21:14). She is indestructible (Mt 16:18). She is upheld infallibly in the truth: Christ governs her through Peter and the other apostles, who are present in their successors, the Pope and the college of bishops.”(Catechism, 869) All bishops must therefore be appointed by the Successor of Peter — the Holy Father, the Pope. And they must be men of moral principles and wisdom. The government must play no role in the selection process:

“[T]he right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and per se exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority. Therefore, for the purpose of duly protecting the freedom of the church and of promoting more conveniently and efficiently the welfare of the faithful, this holy council desires that in future no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be granted to civil authorities.” (Christus Dominus, para. 20)

Yet, the seven illicit “bishops” were not appointed by the Pope, and their moral integrity is questionable. They do not have the trust of the faithful, and have never repented publicly. If they were to be recognized as legitimate, the faithful in Greater China would be plunged into confusion and pain, and schism would be created in the Church in China.

We fully understand that the Holy See is eager to be able to evangelize in China more effectively. However, we are deeply worried that the deal would create damages that cannot be remedied. The Communist Party in China, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, has repeatedly destroyed crosses and churches, and the Patriotic Association maintains its heavy-handed control over the Church. Religious persecution has never stopped. Xi has also made it clear that the Party will strengthen its control over religions. So there is no possibility that the Church can enjoy more freedom. In addition, the Communist Party has a long history of breaking promises. We are worried that the agreement would not only fail to guarantee the limited freedom desired by the Church, but also damage the Church’s holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity, and deal a blow to the Church’s moral power. The Church would no longer be able to have the trust of people, and “serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God’s family.” (Gaudium et Spes, 40)

In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, our beloved Pope Francis writes: “Sometimes I wonder if there are people in today’s world who are really concerned about generating processes of people-building, as opposed to obtaining immediate results which yield easy, quick short-term political gains, but do not enhance human fullness… The Lord himself, during his earthly life, often warned his disciples that there were things they could not yet understand and that they would have to await the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:12-13). The parable of the weeds among the wheat (Mt 13:24-30) graphically illustrates an important aspect of evangelization: the enemy can intrude upon the kingdom and sow harm, but ultimately he is defeated by the goodness of the wheat.” (224-225) The Spirit of God sometimes does not allow us to proceed. (ref. Act 16:6) Though the force of evil is growing, time belongs to God. By putting our trust in the Lord, the dark night will eventually pass. Rushing for a quick achievement, taking a wrong step, can result in total failure.

His Holiness has always been attentive to the sufferings of persecuted Christians. He once said: “Legal systems, therefore, whether state or international, are called upon to recognize, guarantee and protect religious freedom, which is an intrinsic right inherent to human nature, to the dignity of being free, and is also a sign of a healthy democracy and one of the principal sources of the legitimacy of the State.” “It causes me great pain to know that Christians in the world submit to the greatest amount of such discrimination. Persecution against Christians today is actually worse than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era.”[1] We believe that persecution of Christians in China also pains His Holiness. Therefore, we urge that any agreement must be grounded in the protection of religious freedom, and an end to religious persecution. Unfortunately, as a newly-revised Regulation on Religious Affairs, which allows for stricter scrutiny over religions, has just been put into effect in early February, we cannot see any possibility that the coming agreement can result in the Chinese government stopping its persecution of the Church, and ceasing its violations of religious freedom.

Your Eminence and Most Reverend, we earnestly hope that, you, your brothers and your flock continue to pray for the communion of the Church in China, as well as her pastoral ministry. We earnestly ask you, with the love on the people of God, appeal to the Holy See: Please rethink the current agreement, and stop making an irreversible and regrettable mistake.

May the Almighty God bless the Church in China!

Martyr Saints of China, pray for us!

The initiators are university professors, lecturers, researchers, human rights activists and lawyers:

  • Dr. Kenneth Ka-lok Chan (Hong Kong)
  • Prof. Joseph Yu-shek Cheng (Hong Kong)
  • Mr. Yiu-leung Cheung (Hong Kong)
  • Dr Rodney Wai-chi Chu (Hong Kong)
  • Dr. Martin C. K. Chung (Hong Kong)
  • Mr. Yan-ho Lai (Hong Kong)
  • Dr. Wing-kwan Lam (Hong Kong)
  • Dr. Lisa Yuk-ming Leung (Hong Kong)
  • Mr. Kwok-ming Ma (Hong Kong)
  • Mr. Chit-wai John Mok (Irvine, US)
  • Dr. Yik-fai Tam (San Francisco, US)
  • Prof. Wai Ting (Hong Kong)
  • Mr. Yiu-ming To (Hong Kong)
  • Mr. Benedict Rogers (London, UK)
  • Mr. Patrick Yu (Northern Ireland, UK)

The letter urged the bishops to appeal to the Vatican to rethink the agreement and “stop making an irreversible and regrettable mistake.”

They cited the government’s destruction of crosses and churches, the CCPA’s control over the Church, and President Xi Jinping’s campaign to strengthen control over religions.

Xi vowed to “sinicise religions” in the officially atheist country at the Communist Party Congress in October, continuing his campaign to force religious groups to adhere to the leadership of the Party and adapt to “socialist society.”

China’s 12 million-odd Catholics are split between the CCPA and an “underground” church that swears allegiance to the Vatican and faces systematic persecution by the authorities.

“In addition, the Communist Party has a long history of breaking promises. We are worried that the agreement would not only fail to guarantee the limited freedom desired by the Church, but also damage the Church’s holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity, and deal a blow to the Church’s moral power. The Church would no longer be able to have the trust of people,” the group said.

It added that new regulations put into effect at the beginning of the month mean there is no possibility that the agreement can stop the Chinese government’s persecution of the Church or its violations of religious freedom.

Hong Kong cardinal Joseph Zen has accused the Holy See of “selling out” to Beijing with the deal, and said it would put the country’s Catholics in a cage controlled by the Communist Party.

pietro parolin
Pietro Parolin. File photo: Kremlin.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, said in an interview with Vatican Insider in January that the Vatican expects in its dialogue with Beijing to find “realistic pastoral solutions that allow Catholics to live their faith and to continue together the work of evangelization in the specific Chinese context.”

He said that the question of the appointment of bishops was crucial, and some may be asked to make “a sacrifice” for the good of the church.

“The hope is that, when God wills it, we won’t have to speak of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” Bishops, “clandestine” and “official” Bishops in the Church in China, but about meeting among brothers and sisters, learning the language of collaboration and communion again.”

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Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.