The Sino-Vatican Agreement in a Time of Missteps

April 16, 2023
Shanghai St. Ignatius Cathedral

The news had the effect of throwing cold water on the Vatican in the middle of Holy Week, the People's Republic of China unilaterally announced the appointment of Bishop Shen Bin as head of the diocese of Shanghai. The Holy See has not yet reacted officially, but the future of the Sino-Vatican agreement seems uncertain.

The decision taken by Beijing a few days before Easter, the greatest liturgical feast of the year, has symbolic value: the episcopal seat of Shanghai is not only that of one of the largest metropolises in China, but also a fundamental place in the history and life of the Chinese Catholic community. The city is home to around 150,000 faithful divided into around forty parishes.

History of the Diocese of Shanghai

The origins of Christianity in Shanghai date back to Xu Guangqi, mandarin of the Ming court and disciple of Matteo Ricci, considered the first Christian in the city.

But Shanghai was also the scene of one of the most important events in the history of Catholicism in China at the beginning of the 20th century: the Plenary Council of the Chinese Church convened in 1924 by the Apostolic Delegate Celso Costantini. A meeting that was a crucial moment for reflection on the inculturation of Christianity in China.

Then came the storm of the Cultural Revolution: Msgr. Ignazio Kung Pin-mei, the first Chinese archbishop of Shanghai, was arrested on September 8, 1955. He spent more than thirty years behind bars, before being exiled to the United States where he died in 2000. In 1979, during his first consistory, John Paul II had created him cardinal in pectore as a sign of closeness to the Catholics of China, a decision made public in 1991.

The Bishops of Shanghai Since the Communist Takeover

After the Cultural Revolution, the authorities of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appointed Archbishop of Shanghai the Jesuit Aloysius Jin Luxian, who was recognized by Rome in 2005.

In 2012, Msgr. Ma Daqin was appointed head of the diocese with the agreement of the Holy See. The prelate then announced his intention to refuse to join the Patriotic Association in the hands of the CCP: a resounding gesture which caused him to be interned – until today – in the premises of the seminary adjacent to the Marian sanctuary of Our Lady of Sheshan, the “Chinese Lourdes.”

Asked on April 4, 2023 by accredited journalists, about the sudden appointment of Msgr. Shen Bin in Shanghai, the director of the press office of the Holy See replied tersely: “The Holy See was informed a few days ago of the decision of the Chinese authorities and learned from the media of his installation this morning.”

And Matteo Bruni added that for the time being, he had no comment to make “on the assessment of the Holy See on this subject.”

It is an appointment that complicates the relationship between Beijing and the Vatican since according to the provisional agreement signed in 2018, renewed in 2020 and 2022, the choice of new Chinese bishops should be decided jointly by the Holy See and Beijing.

According to the sinologist Francesco Sisci, this latest incident does not necessarily call into question the agreement made between the Vatican and the Middle Kingdom, but indicates an unease on the Chinese side: “This decision seems to me to reveal a certain nervousness. It is in a gray area of the agreement on the appointments of bishops. In fact, Bishop Shen Bin is not a new bishop, he was simply transferred from one diocese to another,” the expert explains.

The first declaration of the new archbishop of Shanghai, published on WeChat, is not likely to lead to a delirium of optimism: Msgr. Shen assures that he “will adhere to the principles of independence, self-administration, and sinicization of religion” expressly wanted by Xi Jinping, the all-powerful ruler of Beijing.