The coadjutor of the deceased bishop of Tianjin is threatened with the annulment of his episcopal rights if he doesn’t join the CPCA.
by Wang Gong
On June 8, Stephen Li Side (1926-2019), the diocesan bishop of the Tianjin Diocese in northern China, passed away after a long illness at the age of 92. He had been living under house arrest since 1992.
According to UCANews, the funeral for Bishop Li was held on June 10, with the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) entirely in charge of the proceedings, prohibiting the priests not recognized by the state to participate in all events surrounding the funeral. Believers that are not part of congregations belonging to CPCA were not allowed to attend the funeral.
Coadjutor Bishop Melchior Shi Hongzhen, which had been appointed “with right of succession,” should in principle automatically succeed the late diocesan bishop under Catholic Canon Law, although doubts may exist because he is 92 and now well past the age of retirement as an active bishop (75) in the Catholic Church. At any rate, the Communist authorities not only did not acknowledge his status as a bishop but didn’t even allow him to attend Bishop Li’s funeral and threatened to revoke his episcopal rights if he would not join the CPCA. Bishop Shi has been living under house arrest in the mountains for years.
A week before Bishop Li’s death, the district’s United Front Work Department, National Security Division, Public Security Bureau, and other government departments conducted round-the-clock surveillance of the parish to which Bishop Melchior Shi Hongzhen belongs, restricting his movements. It wasn’t until after Bishop Li’s burial that government personnel withdrew from the area.
A source who spoke on condition of anonymity revealed to Bitter Winter that on June 15, a week after Bishop Li’s death, Tianjin city’s United Front Work Department demanded that Bishop Shi accept the appointment letter from the Chinese Catholic Church’s “one Conference and one Association” (a collective term for the “Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China” and the CPCA), support the principle of an “independent, autonomous, and self-administered” Catholic Church in China, and accept the Communist Party’s leadership.
Bishop Shi refused, saying that the principle of “independence and self-administration” violates the teachings of Catholicism; according to the Catholic doctrine, the church must accept the leadership of the Pope only – otherwise, it cannot be called Catholic.
A priest from the Diocese of Tianjin, one of the Catholic conscientious objectors who refused to join the CPCA after the Vatican-China deal of 2018, said that it is utterly absurd that the CCP, which is an atheistic political party, wants to lead the Catholic Church. He maintained the position that the CPCA is simply a schism from the Roman Catholic Church, although this is no longer the Vatican’s position. The Vatican allows priests and Bishops to join the CPCA and seems to regard this as normal, although it allows for “conscientious objection” by those who believe joining is against their conscience.
Since details of the Vatican-China deal of 2018 are secret, it is unclear whether cases such as the one of Tianjin will be solved. It is probable that also considering the old age of Bishop Shi, the Vatican and the CCP will ask him to “retire” and will agree on the choice of a new diocesan bishop.