China’s state-governed Catholic Church has approved the nomination for a new bishop of Beijing, according to an announcement made at an Episcopal conference this past week.
With the approval, “Joseph” Li Shan now replaces Bishop Fu Tieshan, the hard-line former chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) who died in April.
Although Li’s nomination in July was initially met with criticism by groups such as the Catholic news agency Asia News – which accused the government of forcibly coercing clergy and layman in the Patriotic Association to vote for Li – the Vatican did not openly voice opposition against Li’s nomination, and said on its radio broadcast that it was “pleased” with the choice.
Since the communists’ break from the Vatican in 1951, China’s estimated 12 million Catholics are divided between the state-run Patriotic Association and the unregistered “underground” church, which maintains loyalty to Pope Benedict XVI.
The Patriotic Association regularly assigns bishops without Rome’s approval, which in the past has worsened tensions between China and the Vatican.
In June, Pope Benedict issued a letter reaffirming that the Vatican had sole right to ordaining Chinese bishops – a claim that Beijing sees as a direct challenge to China’s sovereignty.
The pope’s diplomatic stance on Taiwan has also further driven a wedge that prevents normalized Sino-Vatican relations. Seeing the Vatican as the last major supporter of Taiwan, Beijing often pressures the papacy to severe ties with the self-governed island, which China considers a breakaway.
Last month, Liu Bainan, the senior spokesman for the Patriotic Association, seemingly invited the Pope to a historic visit to China during an interview with Italian news media – drawing speculation of a thaw in Sino-Vatican relations.
Liu later denied to state-media that he gave such an invitation, claiming that he only “hoped the Pope could visit China and celebrate mass but only after normalization of diplomatic ties.”
Though the Vatican often objects to ordainment of Chinese bishops without papal authority, it has approved most of the bishops selected by the Patriotic Association.
Prospects for normalized Sino-Vatican relations remain to be seen, as both Beijing and the Vatican have so far refused to hold open dialogue.