Beijing could be preparing to create a new bishop to oversee a diocese not yet recognized by the Vatican, according to several priests in northern China.
If true, the move would undermine the landmark deal struck last year between the Holy See and Beijing that supposedly gives the Vatican a say in the appointment of bishops in China.
The priests’ fears were raised following a recent Catholic Church congress in Zhangjiakou, in Hebei province, during which new committee members were elected to the local state-aligned Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) and the advisory board of Zhangjiakou Diocese.
Zhangjiakou Diocese was set up by Beijing in 1980 and has not been endorsed by the Vatican, which instead recognizes Xuanhua and Xiwanzi dioceses, that cover the same territory.
Several priests at the Dec. 4 congress that saw a total of 92 participants take part, said the CPA advisory board was established to “lay the foundation for the self-election and self-ordination of bishops,” in the diocese and undermine the promotion of unity between the “open” and “underground” churches as advocated by the pope.
Father Wang Zhengui, who serves as the rector of the Zhangjiakou Diocese, was elected as the new director of the CPA body while Father Zhang Li who was once with Vatican recognized Xuanhua Diocese was made the first vice director.
The sources say that the government want Father Wang to become the bishop of Zhangjiakou.
Father Zhang is a well-known critic of Coadjutor Bishop Cui Tai of the underground church.
In March, Bishop Cui had Father Zhang suspended from his ministry for promoting communion between the underground and open communities in what was seen as a defection by Father Zhang to the government side.
Bishop Cui also accused him of steering underground church members over to the Beijing-sanctioned church.
Father Zhang, with the backing of authorities, responded by allegedly having police arrest Bishop Cui for refusing to join the open community.
The current whereabouts of the bishop, who has been detained by authorities on several occasions, remains unknown.
“The government arranged this congress with the aim of completely incorporating the underground Xuanhua and Xiwanzi dioceses into Zhangjiakou Diocese, and then selecting a bishop whom it recognizes,” an underground church source who identified himself as Father Paul, told UCA News.
Zhangjiakou Diocese had previously been led by self-nominated and self-ordained bishops until 1992, but the post has remained vacant since then and now Beijing wants to fill it without the Vatican having a say, contrary to the deal they struck last year, Father Paul said.
“This … won’t promote the unity advocated by the pope but force the Church to bow to Beijing through a kind of administrative violence instead. It also violates the constitution that provides for the right to religious belief,” Father Paul said.
The way Beijing sees it, according to one church member, why should the Vatican have a say in the appointment of a bishop in a jurisdiction it does not recognize. Another way of looking at it could be Beijing is trying to strong arm the Vatican into recognizing Zhangjiakou Diocese, the church member said.
Another clue to Beijing’s intentions lies with other members of the CPA committee and the diocesan advisory board the church sources said.
Apart from priests of the open community in Zhangjiakou, sitting on them there are also priests of the underground community too.
However, some of these underground priests were once forced to take part in a government “ideological conversion class,” which makes their true loyalties suspect, the church sources said.
According to another church source called Father John, who attended the congress, Beijing simply does not want to compromise with the Vatican
“They [the government] never wanted to give up the self-election and self-ordination of bishops in the first place,” he told UCA News.
“This congress emphasized the existence of Zhangjiakou Diocese with the establishment of the Zhangjiakou diocesan advisory board. The self-election and self-ordination of a bishop is the next step,” he said.