Beijing has appointed seven bishops that Rome opposes, while an estimated 30 to 40 underground bishops with Rome’s blessing operate without the Chinese government’s approval.
In a statement released on Monday, the former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, confirmed the broad outlines of the Vatican’s recent efforts, writing that he traveled to Rome this month to personally deliver to the pope a letter from an underground bishop who had refused to resign.
The letter came from Bishop Zhuang Jianjian of the southern Chinese city of Shantou, an 88-year-old who had been secretly ordained in 2006 with Vatican approval.
In December, Bishop Zhuang was escorted by government officials to Beijing, where he was taken to the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse to meet a papal delegation believed to have been headed by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, who leads the Vatican’s China negotiating team.
According to an account in the Catholic publication Asianews.it, which Cardinal Zen confirmed was accurate, the Vatican envoys asked Bishop Zhuang to step aside in favor of Huang Bingzhang, an excommunicated bishop and a member of China’s rubber-stamp Parliament, the National People’s Congress. Mr. Huang was excommunicated in 2011 for accepting the government appointment of bishop despite being repeatedly warned against it by Rome.
Bishop Zhuang had tears in his eyes when the request was made and returned to Shantou, Cardinal Zen said.
The Vatican team is said to have then traveled to Fujian Province, where it asked another underground bishop, Guo Xijin, 59, to step down. He was also asked to serve as an assistant to Zhan Silu, a government-appointed bishop whose consecration the Vatican had previously declared illegal.
Newsletter Sign Up
Thank you for subscribing.
An error has occurred. Please try again later.
You are already subscribed to this email.
View all New York Times newsletters.
- See Sample
- Manage Email Preferences
- Not you?
- Opt out or contact us anytime
In his statement on Monday, Cardinal Zen said that when he delivered Bishop Zhuang’s letter to the pope, the pontiff told him that his negotiators should not “create another Mindszenty case,” a reference to a pro-democracy bishop in Hungary who was forced out of his country in 1956 and replaced with a person acceptable to the government.
Cardinal Zen wrote that he had been heartened by the words. “I was there in the presence of the Holy Father representing my suffering brothers in China,” he said. “His words should be rightly understood as of consolation and encouragement more for them than for me.”
The Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, the editor of Asianews.it, said the developments showed that Vatican negotiators were prepared to give the Chinese government “carte blanche, and accept all requests and pose no opposition on questions that affect the church in China.”
But Father Cervellera said the pope’s reported comments to Cardinal Zen may have signaled that he was not entirely in agreement with his negotiators.
People following the issue said that the highly unusual series of events showed how badly the Vatican wanted a deal.
“The fact that both sides can carry on the negotiation till now shows that the Vatican must consider this a rare opportunity,” said Wang Meixiu, a researcher on Chinese Catholicism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
Dr. Chen in Belgium said that one reason for the Vatican’s eagerness was a sense that the faith had been growing relatively slowly compared with other religions in China. While the number of Protestants has grown from one million in 1949 to at least 50 million today, the number of Catholics has largely tracked population growth, increasing from three million in that period to at most 12 million today, in part because of the schism in the Chinese Catholic Church.
The pope’s background as a priest in the Society of Jesus may also play a role, Dr. Chen said. Jesuits arrived in China more than 400 years ago, establishing a permanent presence for the church on the mainland after several failed efforts in earlier centuries. But they did so by being extremely flexible and conforming to local norms — a point that may be informing the pope’s negotiating approach.
“He has a sense of mission,” Dr. Chen said. “There’s a historic responsibility.”
While some have criticized the concessions — Cardinal Zen wrote in his statement on Monday that he thought “yes, definitely,” that the Vatican was “selling out the Catholic Church in China” — others say the pope has little choice.
Beijing has taken an increasingly strict line toward nongovernmental organizations, including religious groups. New religious rules are expected to go into effect on Thursday, possibly making it harder for underground churches to operate.
But the risks are also great. If Cardinal Zen’s views are shared by many Catholics, the backlash could be significant.