By Matthew Santucci
A Chinese bishop who was appointed last April against the wishes of the Vatican has renewed his commitment to implement the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s program of religious sinicization in his diocese.
Bishop Joseph Shen Bin of Shanghai made his comments in an interview with the state news agency, China News Service.
“Sinicization is a directional issue: a signpost and a direction to adapt to the socialist society as well as an inherent rule and a fundamental requirement for the survival and development of the Catholic Church in China itself,” Shen said, UCA News reported.
He went on to say that “sinicization is not to change religious beliefs” but emphasized that Catholic teaching should “align” with the party’s ideology.
“This means to provide the explanations of theological classics, doctrines, and canons that align with the requirements of socialist core values. Through cultural infusion, the Church incorporates elements and characteristics of Chinese culture in Church liturgy, architecture, arts, and more; aiming to establish a Catholic theological framework with Chinese characteristics, which can be used as a guide to put sinicization of Catholicism into practice,” Shen said.
Shen serves as the vice chairman of the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and is chairman of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCAA) — the episcopal conference of the state-sanctioned Church, a body not recognized by the Holy See.
Shen made waves when he was unilaterally appointed as bishop of Shanghai in April without a papal mandate, thereby breaking the terms of the contested Sino-Vatican Accord. While the text of the accord is secret, it regulates the appointment of bishops of the mainland — and stipulates that episcopal appointments require approval from both the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. The provisional agreement first went into effect in 2018 and was subsequently renewed in 2020 and 2022. It will be up for renewal, for a third time, in 2024.
Shen was officially installed as bishop of Shanghai on July 15, when Pope Francis decided to retroactively approve his appointment.
The Holy See Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the Holy Father’s decision was made to “heal the canonical irregularity.” He also said the “intention is fundamentally pastoral” and will allow the bishop to “work with greater serenity to promote evangelization and foster ecclesial communion.”
Shen’s recent comments come after he gave an extensive, 15-page interview with the diocesan magazine of Shanghai in October where he again emphasized the importance of implementing sinicization for the Church in China.
“We must adhere to the principle of patriotism and love for the Church, adhere to the principle of independence and autonomy in running the Church, adhere to the principle of democracy in running the Church, and adhere to the direction of the sinicization of the Catholic Church in China. This is the bottom line, which no one can break, and it is also a high-pressure line, which no one should touch,” Shen said in the October interview.
While the process of religious sinicization has a deeper historical connotation of enculturating faith into the context of Chinese society, under Xi Jinping it has taken on a new dimension to bring religious belief and practice in harmony with the CCP’s ideology.
“We will fully implement the party’s basic policy on religious affairs, uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation, and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society,” Jinping said.
From Nov. 7–8 the “First Shanghai Catholic Sinicization Seminar: History and Prospects” was held in Shanghai to further promote the program.
The seminar was attended by professors, local government representatives, Bishop Joseph li Shan of Beijing (chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association), and members of the United Front Work Department, an organ of the CCP that directly handles religious affairs in mainland China.
According to the official website of the BCAA, the seminar focused on “topics such as the history and future of the sinicization of Catholicism, the Shanghai experience of the sinicization of Catholicism, the interreligious dialogue dimension of mutual learning among civilizations, and the sinicization practice of cultivating religious talents.”