Vatican ordains first Chinese bishop

First Catholic bishop appointed under new agreement . . . 

The Vatican announced today that Antonio Yao Shun has been ordained bishop of the diocese of Jining in Inner Mongolia, home to approximately 70,000 Catholics. Yao Shun’s episcopal motto will be ‘Misericordes sicut Pater’ (Merciful like the Father). The bishop is the first to be appointed by the Catholic Church under a new agreement between Beijing and the Vatican, signed last September. According to China’s state media, another Chinese bishop has been slated to be ordained, but the Vatican has yet to confirm this.

Holy rapprochement . . .

Approximately 12 million Catholics live in China, and a third of their dioceses currently operate without a bishop. Bishop Yao Shun’s ordainment symbolizes the rapprochement between the Vatican and Beijing, whose diplomatic ties were severed in 1951. While the Chinese constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, all religious groups must be approved by the state. Further, all religious groups suffered severe persecution during The Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. Until the September 2018 agreement, the relationship between the Vatican and Beijing had remained tense due to their differences on bishop appointments and the Church’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan. As a result, the Catholic Church in China had been split into the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, recognized by the state, and the underground church, faithful to the Vatican. The new agreement is intended to help unite these two groups.

Vatican selling out?

The rapprochement has raised concerns. Historically, the Catholic Church has presented itself as a key player in promoting human rights and social justice against authoritarian governments, as in El Salvador and South Korea. On the other hand, Beijing’s poor record on human rights and respect for religious freedom are well known and widely criticized. The Vatican’s rapprochement with Beijing has been read as ‘selling out’ by some Catholics. Further, the Vatican’s rapprochement with Beijing could potentially compromise its diplomatic relations with Taiwan, although Chinese government sources have said that the discussions remain “on the religious level, and will not touch on any diplomatic issue such as the establishment of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Vatican.”