The Holy See has just officially protested against the recent installation of an auxiliary bishop within what Rome considers to be an illegitimate ecclesiastical jurisdiction, by means of a press release with an unusually firm tone. This is the first real test of the Sino-Vatican agreement, renewed a few weeks ago, and whose survival seems to be hanging by a thread.
Could the honeymoon, whether real or apparent, between the Vicar of Christ and the Son of Heaven have fizzled out? The least we can say is that it has been seriously damaged since the official communiqué published on the official Vatican website on November 26, 2022.
Asked on November 28 about the unilateral installation of Bishop John Peng Weizhao as auxiliary bishop of the “diocese of Jiangxi,” the spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied to the press that he was “not aware of this particular question,” brushing aside the Roman protests.
And Zhao Lijian confined himself to pointing out that “in recent years, China and the Vatican have reached a series of important consensus, and (that) Sino-Vatican relations continue to improve in order to promote the harmonious development of Chinese Catholicism.”
For Michel Chambon, anthropologist and theologian specializing in China, the Vatican's new firmness would mark a “change of strategy” in the “context of mounting pressure since last April and the arrest of Cardinal Zen.”
Far from marking the failure of the agreement, the Roman communiqué revealed, according to the researcher, that it has entered a test phase: indeed, the Chinese authorities took the precaution of appointing as bishop a prelate from the so-called “underground” or “clandestine” Church, recognized by Rome from the very beginning, thus avoiding the accusation of formal schism, which would have signed the ultimate fatal transgression of the agreement between Rome and Beijing.
On the Holy See’s side, the standoff in progress would, still according to the sinologist, aim to guarantee the power of Rome in the transfer of bishops and the division of ecclesiastical districts. In fact, for the Vatican, the “diocese” of Jiangxi remains a province divided into five dioceses and apostolic prefectures, merged into a single entity by the communist authorities in 1985, without the approval of the pope.
In other words, the decision to appoint a bishop who is legitimate in the eyes of Rome, to a diocese that is not recognized by the latter, is for Beijing a clever way of clarifying and hardening the agreement reached with the Vatican, by setting strict limits.
For Rome, communicating its dissatisfaction is a way of “testing” the masters of the Middle Kingdom. And perhaps, even more, a survival operation, an attempt for Vatican diplomacy to save face.
The Holy See cannot in fact compromise on its ability to appoint, promote, or transfer its bishops, at the risk of losing credibility, and allowing its image to deteriorate a little further on the world geopolitical chessboard, at a time when many wonder about the silence of pontifical diplomacy regarding the alarming situation of Catholics in China.
In an interview granted to the Jesuit magazine America, carried out a week before the Holy See’s protest, the Pope once again defended the diplomatic line of the Vatican vis-à-vis China. “One dialogs up to the point that is possible,” he insists in this interview. The goal of the Holy See, he stresses, is to enable Chinese Catholics to be “good Chinese and good Christians.”
Taking the Ostpolitik led by cardinal diplomat Agostino Casaroli during the Cold War as a model, he affirms that “dialogue is way of the best diplomacy,” acknowledging however its slowness and the failures that can punctuate this road.
Will the Vatican go through with its protest? In any case, it is certain that China will take advantage of this episode to test the limits of the Holy See’s determination.