The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, has asked Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou, China, to retire in order to allow a government-approved bishop to take his place. Bishop Zhuang has refused the request.
Since the earliest days of the Communist regime in 1949, religions in China have only been allowed to operate under strict supervision of the government. Catholic churches are required to be part of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) to legally practice the Catholic Faith. In the beginning, this policy created a schism, because the CPA does not accept the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, a key doctrine of Catholicism. Instead, the government appoints bishops, exercising a power reserved for the Holy See. The Vatican does not recognize these illicitly ordained bishops and has appointed a number of bishops who, along with their priests, must minister underground to avoid arrest. A number have been arrested, imprisoned, and even killed for their allegiance to Rome.
For the past half century, China and the Vatican have had precarious relations regarding the regulations on Catholicism. However, in the last decade, there have been moves for greater cooperation, with the eventual goal of reunifying the Church in China with the universal Church. To this end, the Vatican and the Chinese government have jointly appointed a number of bishops, so that many are recognized by both sides.
Many of the bishops in the CPA have been educated in Rome, and often bristle at the restrictions placed on them. One bishop, Thaddeus Ma Daquin, even tried to resign from the CPA, but was immediately placed under house arrest and forced to change his stance.
All of this occurs while China continues its crackdown on religion. 1,500 Catholic and Protestant churches have been targeted for compulsory demolition or removal of crosses in the Zhejiang province. A 2017 US State Department report indicates that the government has “physically abused, detained, arrested, tortured, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups.” A policy to “Sinicize” foreign religions, forcing them to uphold the Communist Party in their teaching.
In the latest effort to dominate Sino-Vatican relationships, Cardinal Parolin asked some of the underground bishops to either retire or accept demotion in order for CPA bishops to take their place. In return, the government promised to recognize dozens of underground bishops. As mentioned, Bishop Zhuang has refused, along with another bishop who was asked to become coadjutor for a government appointed bishop. Six months ago, Cardinal Zen, the highest ranking Chinese prelate, denounced the Vatican’s attempt to compromise with the Chinese government: “[The Vatican] are giving decisive power to the government… How can the initiative of choosing bishops be given to an atheistic government? Incredible. Incredible.”