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2nd Catholic bishop in China steps aside for state-approved cleric

  • 19 Dec 2018

There are an estimated 10 million Catholics in China, divided between a government-run association whose clergy are approved by the Communist Party, and the unofficial church loyal to the Vatican.

The Chinese national flag flies in front of a Catholic church in the village of Huangtuang, Hebei province, China, September 30, 2018. ( Reuters Archive )

A second bishop from China's 'underground' Catholic church is stepping aside and is being replaced by a government-backed clergyman, state-run media reported, amid a thaw in relations between Beijing and the Vatican.

There are an estimated 10 million Catholics in China, divided between a government-run association whose clergy are approved by the Communist Party, and the unofficial church which answers to the Vatican.

An agreement struck in September on the appointment of bishops has paved the way for a rapprochement between China and the Holy See, which cut off diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1951.

Zhuang Jianjian, bishop of the Shantou diocese in southern China will retire and be replaced by Huang Bingzhang, deputy chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the Global Times reported.

The Vatican-issued mandate was given to Huang last week by a delegation from Rome that met several Chinese bishops, the state-linked paper reported.

"The mission now is to unite Catholics in the diocese and reduce divergence so as to achieve the common goal of better serving church members," Huang told the Global Times.

"This doesn't come as a surprise because Zhuang Jianjian is already 88, so he would have wanted to retire more than a decade ago," said Anthony Lam, a Chinese Catholic church expert at Hong Kong's Holy Spirit Study Centre.

According to canon laws that govern the Catholic church, bishops "are requested" to submit their resignation at the age of 75.

The Catholic pope can either approve the resignation or request that they wait for a suitable successor to emerge, Lam said.

"The agreement between China and the Vatican has solved this problem because the seven bishops previously excommunicated have been restored to the church, so Huang Bingzhang will be able to take up the position."

The Vatican excommunicated Huang in 2011 for being ordained as a bishop without papal approval.

This is a slightly different situation from that of fellow underground bishop Guo Xijin, who was last week asked to step aside in the eastern Fujian province to make way for government-approved clergy, Lam noted.

Guo instead will serve as "auxiliary bishop" – someone who assists and works alongside the diocesan bishop – while both the unofficial and official churches of the diocese will merge.

Guo's case was at the centre of last week's negotiations between China and the Vatican, which have been asking him to leave his post since 2017 to allow for talks aimed at ending their decades-old spat.

Separately, the official church said it is facing a lack of bishops and called for "politically reliable" clergymen with "good ethics," the Global Times reported on Wednesday.

Nearly half of China's 98 Catholic dioceses have no leaders, chairman of the China Bishops Conference Ma Yinglin told a seminar, according to the paper.

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