Chinese Catholic bishop tells church to 'follow a path of sinicization' at Vatican event

Two men look at St Joseph's Church, also known as Wangfujing Catholic Church, in Beijing on October 22, 2020, the day a secretive 2018 agreement between Beijing and the Vatican was renewed for another two years.
Two men look at St Joseph's Church, also known as Wangfujing Catholic Church, in Beijing on October 22, 2020, the day a secretive 2018 agreement between Beijing and the Vatican was renewed for another two years. | GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

A bishop recently appointed by the Chinese authorities in violation of an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church was a keynote speaker at a Tuesday event organized by the Vatican.

The Vatican held an international conference in Shanghai to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1924 Concilium Sinense, the first official council of the Chinese Catholic Church.

Titled "100 years since the Concilium Sinense: between history and the present," the event was organized by the Pontifical Urban University along with the Agenzia Fides and the Pastoral Commission for China.

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Bishop Joseph Shen Bin of Shanghai, appointed to his position by the Chinese Communist Party-controlled Council of Chinese Bishops last year, was one of the speakers.

During his remarks, as quoted by Vatican News, Bishop Shen Bin said that historically, problems between the Church and the Chinese government were partly due to "the strong sense of European cultural superiority" of some missionaries, who he claimed "intended to use the Christian religion to change Chinese society and culture."

The bishop said that while the Chinese government pursues "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation comprehensively with a modernization in Chinese style," the Church "must move in the same direction" and follow a "path of sinicization that aligns with today's Chinese society and culture."

Bishop Shen Bin invited Chinese Catholic clergy and laity "to love their country and their Church and closely link the Church's development with the people's well-being."

In the last decade, Chinese President Xi Jinping has promoted a regulatory "Sinicization" initiative to govern religious affairs in China, where religious bodies are encouraged to promote Chinese and socialist characteristics and values. 

In 2019, a Chinese government official who heads state-sanctioned Protestant churches in China vowed to eliminate the Western "imprint" from Christianity. A five-year plan to "Sinicize" Christian churches includes a rewrite of the New Testament using Buddhist scripture and Confucian teachings. 

Pope Francis addressed Tuesday's conference in a video, saying that the 1924 council "was indeed an important step in the journey of the Catholic Church in the great country that is China."

"In Shanghai, the Fathers gathered in the Concilium Sinense had an authentically synodal experience and made important decisions together," he continued.

"The Holy Spirit brought them together, made harmony grow among them, led them along paths that many among them would not have imagined, overcoming even perplexity and resistance."

Francis said the Catholic Church's "journey through history has taken unforeseen paths, also through times of patience and trial," and that "the faith of God's people has been the compass that has shown the way throughout this time, before and after the Shanghai Council, up to the present day."

"Chinese Catholics, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, walk in the present time," he added. "In the context in which they live, they also bear witness to their faith with works of mercy and charity, and in their witness, they make a real contribution to the harmony of social coexistence, to the building of the common home."

In 2018, the Vatican and Communist China reached a controversial agreement in which the government would submit candidates for bishop offices while Francis would get the final say. 

Some clergy and religious freedom advocacy groups, including the United States-based NGO International Christian Concern, criticized the agreement.

"Despite the Holy See's attempt to normalize its operation in the authoritarian country, religious freedom has not improved for the underground Chinese Catholics in the last few years," ICC warned in a statement.

"Many disappeared clergy have not returned, while those who are loyal to the Vatican constantly face threats and sometimes are subject to a 're-education' for their submission to join the official church."

The Vatican renewed the agreement with China in October 2022. Although the agreement dictates that the government must submit candidates for bishop offices to the Vatican for approval, China appeared to violate that agreement in April 2023 with its appointment of Shen Bin. 

Matteo Bruni, the director of the Holy See Press Office, said at the time that "the Holy See had been informed a few days ago of the decision of the Chinese authorities" to transfer the bishop and that they "learned from the media of the installation this morning." 

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