BEIJING — In a move that has upset many in the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican asked two “underground” bishops in China to surrender their positions to individuals approved by the country’s authoritarian government, including one the Vatican had excommunicated, a cardinal who traveled to Rome said Monday.
In a statement, the former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, confirmed the broad outlines of the Vatican’s efforts.
The Vatican decision in December came amid what observers describe as an extraordinary effort by the Vatican to advance negotiations to restore ties with Beijing after a nearly 70-year schism among Catholics in the world’s most populous nation.
“My feeling is the Vatican wants a breakthrough,” said Chen Tsung-ming, research director at the Ferdinand Verbiest Institute in Belgium, which studies religion and society in modern China. “If they can solve, little by little, the problem of the illegal and the underground bishops, then it may help create a model of negotiations.”
Diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Beijing were severed after the Communist Party took power in China in 1949.
Today, about half of the estimated 10 million to 12 million Catholics in China worship in underground churches that refuse to recognize government control over the faith. The other half worship in government-managed churches run mostly by clergy members appointed by Beijing.
Restoring ties and regularizing Catholic religious life in China has been a priority for Pope Francis. Negotiations started more than 18 months ago, but they are believed to have stalled over the delicate issue of who appoints bishops in the country.
Beijing has appointed seven bishops that Rome opposes, while an estimated 30 to 40 underground bishops with Rome’s blessing operate without Chinese government approval.
In his statement, Zen said 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, 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 Zen confirmed was accurate, the Vatican envoys asked 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.
Huang was excommunicated in 2011 for accepting the government appointment of bishop despite being repeatedly warned against it by Rome.
Zhuang had tears in his eyes when the request was made and returned to Shantou, 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.
In his statement Monday, Zen said that when he delivered Zhuang’s letter to the pope, the pontiff told him that his negotiators should not “create another Mindszenty case,” a reference to a prodemocracy bishop in Hungary who was forced out of his country in 1956 and replaced with a person acceptable to the government.
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.”
In a separate development Monday, official Chinese news agencies reported that Wang Qishan, the formidable Chinese politician who oversaw President Xi Jinping’s withering campaign against corruption, has been appointed to the national legislature.
The announcement added to signs that Wang, who retired from top Communist Party posts last year, could return to public office as a powerful ally of Xi.
Wang, 69, previously ran the Communist Party’s anticorruption agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, turning it into a fearsome enforcer of loyalty to Xi. He stepped down from that and other leadership positions at a party congress in October, apparently sticking to an unspoken retirement ceiling for high-ranking Chinese politicians.
But there has been speculation ever since then that Xi could see to it that Wang remained a powerful player in China’s political leadership.