An ecclesiological view of Sino-Vatican dialogue

Cardinal John Tong Hon (pic) looks ahead to the dialogue between China and the Vatican in this commentary ahead of the first round of negotiations lik

Feb 18, 2017

Cardinal John Tong Hon (pic) looks ahead to the dialogue between China and the Vatican in this commentary ahead of the first round of negotiations likely to be held in late February. His commentary, available in Chinese, English, and Italian, was published Feb 9 on Hong Kong diocesan websites. This is his second article on China-Vatican relations since the one in August. An abridged version of the commentary is available at

Over the past year, there have been frequent contacts between China and the Holy See. A working group has been set up to resolve problems. After several rounds of dialogue, a preliminary consensus has reportedly been reached, and that will lead to an agreement over the core problem relating to the appointment of bishops.

According to Catholic doctrine, the pope remains the last and highest authority in appointing a bishop. If he has the final word about the worthiness and suitability of an episcopal candidate, the elections of local churches and the recommendations of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC) will simply be a way to express recommendations.

It is said that the Chinese government’s concerns are mainly whether the candidates are patriotic and not whether they are loyal to the Catholic Church. Therefore, it would be appropriate to say that the agreement will not exceed the present effective practice.

Such an agreement will be a milestone in the normalization process of China-Vatican relations but by no means the end of it. Both parties will still need to continue the dialogue to resolve other problems accumulated for decades, with patience and confidence.

Among these problems, the first is the issue of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA). The second is the seven self-nominated and self-ordained bishops who have violated canon law. The third is the issue of the more than 30 bishops from the unofficial church community who are not recognized by the Chinese government.

The future of Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association

Many people think that the problem of the CCPA is an unmovable mountain between China and the Vatican.

Also, there are Church people who even think that Rome has renounced her doctrine of faith over this issue. Their reasoning is based on the principle of an “independent, autonomous and self-run Church” of the CCPA, and the implementation of the principle — the “self-nomination and self-ordination” of bishops.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his Letter to the Catholics in China, stated that the CCPA is a government agency and such an entity is incompatible with Catholic doctrine.

It may be said that the CCPA concept of an “independent, autonomous and self-run Church” and the “self-nomination and self-ordination” of bishops is a relationship between theory and practice.

They are products of a distinctive political environment and pressure. They do not go to the intrinsic qualities of the China Church, nor to her inner pursuit. Even though some bishops have been ordained without papal permission, they still make every effort to ask for the pope’s acceptance.

The Sino-Vatican dialogue implies that changes have already taken place in Beijing's policy on the Catholic Church. It will now let the pope play a role in the nomination and ordination of Chinese bishops.

Therefore, the Sino-Vatican agreement will enable the principle of “self-nomination and self-ordination” to be part of history. In the absence of it, the CCPA would turn into a patriotic association in its strict, literal sense: a patriotic and Church-loving organisation composed of clergy and faithful across China.

In my opinion, the future of the CCPA may reorient itself “to encourage clergy and the faithful to carry out social charities, actively start social services, and work on things of social interest.”

The question of the seven illicit bishops

Another obstacle is that of illicit bishops. The seven bishops (previously eight but one died in early 2017), in accordance with the Church law, are under excommunication.

From the Vatican’s perspective, the difficulties with accepting them are that their illicit ordination constitutes a serious breach of Church law. Some are also accused of moral misconduct.

The two offences are different. The act of “self-nomination and self-ordination” is obvious to all and the offence is definite. However, the accusation of moral misconduct calls for more obvious evidence. It will take time to investigate.

It is rumored that the Vatican and Beijing have agreed to deal with the seven bishops’ offensive deeds separately — firstly, the problem of illicit consecration and secondly, other possible offences.

As a precondition for pardoning an illicit bishop, he needs to show repentance. According to reliable information, these illicit bishops have sent letters to the Pope to plead for forgiveness. Pardoning them is a highly probable outcome.

Nevertheless, pardoning the offences is not the equivalent of acknowledging their administrative right to govern a diocese.

Only those who are in conformity with faith, morality and canon law can be granted the administrative rights to a diocese. Thus, more time and patience will be needed from China and the Holy See before the problem of these illicit bishops can be finally resolved. -- La Croix

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