Cardinal Zen is a free spirit in so polite China. Yet people are rubbing their ears in surprise at his sharp tones: "sellout," "ignorance," "misjudgement," "naivete". Meant is – the Vatican".
The Vatican has two rather large construction sites these days. They sound similar and yet are fundamentally different: Chile and China. With both, however, nothing less than Pope Francis' political reputation is at stake. In South America, the ongoing ie is (once again) sexual abuse – and whether a Francis bishop once covered up for a superior. The China construction site is no less delicate. There is uncertainty among Catholics – because the Vatican is apparently negotiating very concretely with the leadership in Beijing about filling bishop's chairs.
A peculiarity of Chinese Catholicism is its separation into two communities, so to speak: the so-called Patriotic Association, recognized by the state, and the so-called underground church, loyal to Rome. In some cases, they coexist in one place. Official diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Beijing do not exist; the main points of contention: the recognition of Taiwan by the Vatican – and precisely the question of bishop appointments. Is this a sovereign task of the state – or of the pope??
Abdication of office by underground bishops loyal to Rome?
Of the approximately 100 Chinese bishops, 7 "patriotic" ones are not recognized by Rome, 3 of them expressly excommunicated. Conversely, 30 to 40 underground bishops officiate without Beijing's approval. More than half of all officeholders are unquestionable. Rumors are growing that after decades of wrangling, there may now be some fundamental movement on the ie. According to reports that those familiar with the matter believe to be credible and plausible, the two sides are currently negotiating behind closed doors for future mutual recognition of disputed candidates.
Information that Rome is prepared to persuade two underground bishops loyal to Rome to resign in order to make room for the patriotic candidates as part of an overall agreement with Beijing is causing a stir and resentment. In the Mindong diocese, such a move would be particularly precarious: the "underground bishop" there, Joseph Guo Xijn, is only 59 years old. A withdrawal of Guo would be difficult to communicate to the Catholics in the underground.
Even experts are apparently not sure what is actually going on. Little or nothing of the content of the negotiations is leaked to the outside world. Local Catholics are also groping in the dark, feeling left out, as the Asian press service Ucanews reports.
New divisions not ruled out
The fear: What will become of us if Rome makes a pact with the government over our heads?? Even new schisms are not ruled out should those so far loyal to Rome not want to go along with the Vatican course. Add to that the risk: what possible promises will the communist regime even keep?
The spokesman for the critics is, of all people, a cardinal: Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009. The 86-year-old is the free spirit among the bishops in so polite China. In China, for example, "everything is fake," he says. As long as the Communist Party ruled, a "culture of lies" prevailed. However, one rubs one's ears in astonishment in view of the sharp tones that the cardinal sends these days also in the direction of Rome. There is talk of "selling out," of "ignorance," "misconceptions," "naivete" and so on.
Zen even feels reminded of the Vatican's Eastern Policy of the 1970s, when later Cardinal Secretary of State Agostino Casaroli made concessions, some of them fatal, to communists in Central and Eastern Europe to ensure the survival of the Church on the ground. At the time, some bishops loyal to Rome were removed because they were too inconvenient for the regimes.
More freedom and security for the Catholics in China
Rome's main goal for negotiations with Beijing is likely to be more freedom and security for Catholics. Accordingly, in response to the recent publications, the Vatican is soliciting trust – and resents allegations of differences between Pope Francis and curia staff on the China ie that only fed polemics and confusion.
For Katharina Wenzel-Teuber, editor-in-chief of the magazine "China heute" published by the China Center in Sankt Augustin near Bonn, such a negotiation course of Beijing would fit quite well into the context of the new Chinese religion law, which is to become effective on 1 January 2009. February went into effect, giving the state more control and crackdown on unofficial religious communities. The previous gray areas, within which a certain tolerance on the part of the local authorities was possible, for example for so-called house churches, are now to be better illuminated, and the leeway is to be reduced.
"One eye open and one eye closed," is how Wenzel-Teuber describes the previous practice. However, the underground church, which is loyal to Rome, has always acted without a legal basis. An access of the Chinese state would be possible at any time in case of emergency.