Mutual Trust Deepens Between Beijing and the Vatican

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Written by Paul Nash

In a show of deepening mutual trust, Beijing has moved closer to an agreement with the Vatican on the selection of Roman Catholic Bishops in China. The Vatican, meanwhile, has taken the controversial step of inviting a former Chinese health official to a conference on human organ trafficking.

Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong on February 9, 2017, wrote in an essay published on the Hong Kong Diocese website, that Beijing and the Vatican had “reached consensus on the appointment of bishops, which could lead to the resolution of other outstanding problems.”

“From now on, there will be no more crisis of division between the open and underground communities of the [Roman Catholic] Church in China,” wrote Tong. “On the contrary,” he added, “these two communities will gradually move toward reconciliation and communion on aspects of law, pastoral care and relationships. The Church in China will work together to preach the gospel of Jesus on Chinese soil.”

Since China’s ruling Communist Party came to power in 1949, Beijing has strongly opposed the Vatican’s right to ordain Chinese bishops, in part because it objects to another state selecting officials in China with influence over as many as 12 million Chinese Roman Catholics on the mainland today. Many Chinese Catholics, however, have remained loyal to Rome, creating an “underground “Church in which Bishops, priests, and lay Catholics loyal to Rome have faced persecution.

Catholic bishops in the “open” or state-sanctioned Roman Catholic church on the mainland are self-nominated and appointed by the government-backed Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, but not all are recognized by the Vatican, which sees this process of appointment as a violation of the Code of Cannon Law.

Cardinal Tong said the Sino-Vatican dialogue indicates that China now will “let the Pope play a role in the nomination and ordination of Chinese bishops.” “Beijing will also recognize the Pope’s right of veto, “acknowledging that the Pope is the highest and final authority in deciding on bishops in China,” he said.

“A Sino-Vatican Agreement on the matter of appointing bishops,” Tong wrote, “will be the crux of the problem and a milestone in the process of normalizing the relationship between the two parties. However, it is by no means the end of the issue. Both parties will still need to continue the dialogue on the basis of the mutual trust developed, to resolve other problems one by one with patience and confidence. These problems have accumulated for decades. It would be unrealistic, if not impossible, to expect them to be cleared up overnight.”

The Vatican remains the only Western state not to have formal diplomatic ties with Beijing. China severed diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951 after the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. Since the 1980s, however, the two sides have made a number of tentative attempts to re-establish relations. Under the current Pope Francis, the two restarted formal dialogue in 2014.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the talks with Beijing are still “a work in progress.”

Cardinal Tong, however, wrote that: “The continuing dialogue “implies a shift in Beijing’s policy on the Catholic Church toward recognizing the pope as “the highest and final authority in deciding on the candidates for bishops in China.”

Meanwhile, the Vatican invited a Chinese delegation to a two-day summit on human organ trafficking and transplant tourism at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome on February 11-12. The Chinese delegation was headed by China’s former vice minister of health, Dr. Huang Jiefu, who is proposing a UN global task force for organ trafficking oversight. The invitation has drawn considerable criticism because China harvests organs from executed prisoners.

Vatican officials have defended the invitation by arguing that it is far more effective to include China in the process of encouraging reform and trying to put an end to the practice, which China claims it stopped in January 2015—although this has not been independently confirmed. Last year, Pope Francis called human organ trafficking a “crime against humanity.”