VATICAN CITY — On Tuesday the spokesman for the Pope, Greg Burke, sent a statement asserting that Pope Francis is well-informed on the situation of the Catholic Church in China and that it is “regrettable” that some members of the Church have said the contrary, thereby sowing “confusion and controversy.”
The Jan. 30 statement declared that “the Pope is in constant contact with his collaborators, in particular in the Secretariat of State, on Chinese issues and is informed by them faithfully and in detail on the situation of the Catholic Church in China.”
He also follows closely “the steps in the dialogue in progress between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China,” the statement continued, and “it is therefore surprising and regrettable that the contrary is affirmed by people in the Church, thus fostering confusion and controversy.”
Burke’s statement contradicts a letter by Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, who wrote Jan. 29 that, at a recent meeting, Pope Francis was “surprised” to learn about the handling of conflict between the Church and the Chinese government, about which he had been reportedly informed in October 2017.
The Hong Kong cardinal is among the critics of a reported effort to normalize relations between the Catholic Church and China’s government. The Church in China is complicated by the relationship between the government-supported Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the underground Church, which includes priests and bishops who are not recognized by the government.
Every bishop recognized by Beijing must be a member of the patriotic association, and many bishops appointed by the Vatican are not recognized or approved by the Chinese government, with many facing government persecution. At the same time, not all bishops appointed by the Chinese government have been approved by the Vatican, and thus, the ordinations of some bishops is canonically illicit.
Asia News has reported that a Holy See delegation in October 2017 asked 88-year-old Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou in southern Guangdong province to retire so that a member of the patriotic association, an illicitly-ordained excommunicated bishop, could take his place and be recognized by the Vatican. The legitimate bishop refused the request to retire, as well as a second request in December. He visited the Vatican delegation in Beijing in December to voice his views.
Elsewhere, in the Mindong Diocese of China’s eastern Fujian province, the delegation reportedly asked Bishop Joseph Guo Xijin to accept a position as coadjutor bishop under a government-favored bishop who was illicitly ordained.
The Holy See’s negotiations with the Chinese government could eventually lead to Vatican recognition of seven illicitly ordained bishops aligned with Beijing. The Holy See could be pursuing China’s official recognition of 20 bishop candidates appointed by the Holy See, some of whom have already been secretly ordained, in addition to state recognition of up to 40 bishops in the underground Catholic community.
Cardinal Zen said he has recently spoken about Vatican activity in China because of the crucial nature of the moment and given “the confusion in the media.” For the cardinal, the problem is not the resignation of the legitimate bishops but “the request to make (a) place for the illegitimate and even excommunicated ones.”
Many underground bishops have asked for a successor but have not received an answer, the cardinal said. He added that some have had a successor named, and are in possession of a papal bull signed by the Pope, but are ordered not to proceed with the ordination “for fear of offending the government.”