Analysis: The Vatican and China Part II, Hong Kong

Hong Kong and Vatican flags. Image via Shutterstock

Part 2 of a three-part series examining the situation of the Church in China.

As the Vatican and China negotiate an extension of the 2018 deal that ceded a measure of control over episcopal appointments to the Communist Party, the Diocese of Hong Kong continues to be the centre of an ecclesiastical and diplomatic minefield.

The Diocese of Hong Kong has been without a bishop since January 2019. Successive candidates selected by the Vatican, and approved by Pope Francis, have had to be withdrawn over political concerns. 

In May, the Chinese state legislature on the mainland voted to impose a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, outside of the territory’s own democratically elected legislature. The law criminalises anything Beijing considers “foreign interference” and will permit Chinese security forces to operate in the city.

This has prompted fears about religious freedom. Compared to the mainland, where the Communist-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association remains the only permitted Catholic presence, the Diocese of Hong Kong has operated with relative freedom. Local Catholics now worry that this will change, and that faithful Catholics could be deemed “foreign collaborators” by the government.

Despite these concerns, Cardinal John Tong Hon, who is temporarily leading the Diocese of Hong Kong after previously retiring from the position in 2017,  spoke publicly of his support for the new security law and his confidence in its provisions for the Church. “I personally believe that the National Security Law will have no effect on religious freedom,” Tong said in June before the final text had been released.

Noting that the Basic Law of Hong Kong guarantees the right to “openly preach and hold religious ceremonies, and participate in religious activities,” he dismissed concerns that direct links with the Vatican by the diocese could be deemed “collusion.” 

“The diocese has always had a direct relationship with the Vatican; the relationship between the Hong Kong diocese and the Vatican should be regarded as an internal matter,” Tong said. 

Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, himself an unsparing critic of the Vatican-China deal and the Hong Kong security law, conceded that Tong was in a “tricky situation” as the interim head of the diocese. 

“On the one hand, it will be a lot of trouble if we don’t support the government. We never know what they will do to our Church,” said Zen. “On the other hand, [Tong] disappointed many within the Church by giving his support.” 

CNA spoke to a senior chancery official in the Diocese of Hong Kong, who asked not to be named, citing concerns about the new security law. The official said that the local Church was split between those with dedicated pro-democracy views, and others sympathetic to the mainland.

“You cannot say that the Church in Hong Kong – the faithful – is just one thing. They are not. You have some who wish the Brits never left and others who consider themselves proudly Chinese.”

“Somewhere in the middle are many, probably most people, who just have concerns about the new laws. They want to be told that everything is going to be ok, but they also know that it probably isn’t. Hearing false reassurances [from the diocese] makes them more, not less anxious.”

Cardinal Zen has also been consistently critical of the Vatican for its failure to denounce, or even acknowledge, the situation in Hong Kong, or the wider human rights crisis on the mainland.

However, a senior Vatican official close to the Secretariat of State told CNA this week that the situation was constantly monitored, especially as discussions continue on the possible extension of the 2018 provisional agreement.

“Despite what [Cardinal] Zen may say, Rome is not deaf or blind,” the official said, “and the Church is never silent, but she is not always speaking in a microphone.”

The official also conceded that Cardinal Tong’s public support for the new laws had made the prospect of appointing a permanent bishop harder.

“There are, of course, concerns about the situation in Hong Kong – bringing the Patriotic Church there by the Communists is the ultimate fear,” he said.

“[Cardinal] Tong would not risk being openly hostile to the government, and he shouldn’t. But appearing to support a dangerous law – even as the people are suffering under it – just makes divisions deeper.”

The official told CNA that the events of June and July meant that an announcement of a new bishop for Hong Kong was “forever delayed.”

“There must be agreement or at least acceptability for both [the Vatican and China],” he said, but “the person has to be acceptable to the people as well.”

“We had one name last year, approved by the pope and ready, but then he became the face of protestors and had to be withdrawn.” 

CNA has previously reported that, in 2019, the Vatican resolved to appoint Hong Kong auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing to lead the diocese. While the appointment was being processed, however, Bishop Ha was publicly seen at the front of pro-democracy demonstrations against a controversial extradition law, and his nomination was reversed before a public announcement could be made.

This week, the senior official told CNA that the new security law and subsequent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations had already led to the dropping of a second choice to lead the diocese.

CNA reported in January that the next choice to lead the diocese was Fr. Peter Choy Wai-man, one of four vicars general in the Hong Kong diocese and dean of the seminary. Known to be close to Cardinal Tong and to have a good working relationship with government figures, both in Hong Kong and the mainland, some in the diocese voiced strong concerns about his closeness to state authorities, with one senior diocesan official describing him as a “pro-Beijing hawk.”

This week, CNA was told by senior Church sources in Rome and China that Choy’s name had also been withdrawn.

“It is impossible [to announce Choy],” the senior official close to the selection process in Rome told CNA this week. “After the comments of [Cardinal] Tong and the protests, the faithful would never accept it – it would appear an act of support for the laws by the Holy Father.”

A senior source close to the Church on the mainland told CNA that Choy would have “made Beijing comfortable,” but “done nothing to reassure Catholics of Hong Kong.”

The official in Rome told CNA that a third candidate was now under consideration in Rome, but that there was little hope for an announcement soon.

“No one knows [when there will be a bishop]. There is a new name, I am hopeful, but until I read it in the bollitino nothing is sure.”

The official did note that the vacancy in Hong Kong, together with the more than 50 empty dioceses on the mainland, would likely factor into the negotiations on renewing the 2018 Vatican-China deal.

“It was fundamentally an agreement about appointing bishops – but almost no bishops have been appointed,” the official said. “Part of moving forward has to be seeing things move forward; I think we may see some names come out as part of an extending of the deal.”

The official also noted that, following China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and sudden wider media interest in the mass internment of Uyghurs, a renewed agreement with the Vatican could be a diplomatic priority for the Chinese.

“The Church wants to see progress on bishops, and an answer on those missing in prison,” he said, “if the Chinese want to continue with the agreement, they will need to show it.”

Many commentators have questioned the Vatican’s engagement with China, saying that any accommodation by the Church is compromising her moral authority and noting that in the two years since the provisional arrangement was signed, the situation for Christians on the mainland has deteriorated. 

Yet the thinking inside the Vatican remains in favour of pursuing dialogue whenever possible.

“Whatever else can be said, we are in these negotiations and we wish the situation of the Church to be better, not worse,” the official said. “If China wants to see the arrangement continue, there will need to be progress – but if the Holy See simply walks away, who in China does that help?”

Source: CNA