Comment Opinion & Features

The scandal of China’s political bishop

Bishop Guo remains a member of the Chinese parliament, despite a canonical ban on clerics holding public office

Cardinal Joseph Zen, emeritus of Hong Kong, was in Rome earlier this month to hand-deliver a letter to Pope Francis about the escalating persecution of the Catholic Church in China.

This is becoming something of a pattern in Rome, where bishops urgently arrive to ask for a correction in the Holy See’s foreign policy. The leadership of the Venezuelan bishops made such a visit in June 2017, and this past June it was the turn of Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. And this was not Cardinal Zen’s first such trip in regard to the Holy See’s China policy.

In our November 2 issue, Fr Dominic Allain wrote of the “demoralisation” of Chinese Catholics, who are facing increased repression after the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China concluded an agreement in September. That accord granted the Chinese communist party a role in selecting bishops, and lifted the excommunications of bishops illegally – but validly – ordained on orders of the Chinese regime.

Cardinal Zen’s visit to Rome was marked by silence from the Vatican. It is not known if the silence is one of acute embarrassment and shame on the part of the Holy See’s diplomats, having recently concluded an agreement with a regime which neglects even the courtesy of fake cooperation, but ramps up persecution instead. Or perhaps the Vatican’s silence was part of the agreement itself. We don’t know, as the agreement is secret.

We do know that China decided, upon concluding the agreement, that it would go out of its way to humiliate Pope Francis. It named its own delegates to the synod, forcing the Vatican to accept them. After the Holy Father magnanimously welcomed them publicly in a voice choking with emotion, the Chinese regime hauled them back to Beijing before the synod finished. Having achieved its propaganda goals, it claimed the bishops had prior commitments back home.

What might that pressing business be? It turns out that one of the two delegates, Bishop Joseph Guo of Chengde, has served for three terms in the National People’s Congress, Beijing’s “parliament”. Bishop Guo was ordained in 2010 without papal approval and so was automatically excommunicated by Pope Benedict XVI. In September, Pope Francis lifted that excommunication.

However, it appears that in its haste to show goodwill toward the Chinese communists, the Vatican neglected to insist that Bishop Guo resign from the National People’s Congress. That chamber generally rubber stamps decisions taken by the communist party, but it is the legal instrument by which much Catholic persecution is executed. It is a grave scandal for a Catholic bishop to be a member of it.

Or at least it should be as objectionable as a retired cardinal sitting in the House of Lords. Upon retirement in 2009, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was offered a seat in the Lords, a gesture of goodwill toward Catholics, given the custom that retired Archbishops of Canterbury are appointed to the Lords. Benedict XVI blocked it, on the grounds that clerics are not to hold political offices, even ones largely ceremonial.

In a similar Commonwealth precedent, a somewhat rogue Quebec priest – Raymond Gravel – was elected as a Member of Parliament in 2006 in a quickly held by-election. Vatican pressure forced him out, and Fr Gravel did not run for re-election in 2008. At about the same time, a Canadian priest was sounded out about a seat in the Senate, Ottawa’s equivalent to the House of Lords. Upon inquiry with the nuncio, opposition was expressed by the Congregation for the Clergy and further consideration was halted.

Then there is Bishop Fernando Lugo of San Pedro, Paraguay. A “bishop of the poor”, he resigned in 2005 at the age of 55 and asked to be laicised in order to run for president. The Vatican refused, saying that a bishop could not request laicisation, and that even a retired bishop was forbidden from holding political office. He ran anyway and, after election as president 2008, was quickly laicised.

Afterward it came to light that he had fathered children with more than one woman while still a bishop, including a girl who was only 16 when he began seducing her. She was 24 when she conceived their child.

In the 1970s, two American priests were elected members of Congress, Robert Cornell of Wisconsin and Robert Drinan, SJ, of Massachusetts. The latter was the most influential cleric in establishing Catholic political support for abortion, as the Jesuit advanced the argument that he was “personally opposed” to abortion but publicly voted in favour of it. That scandal came to end in 1980, when St John Paul II ordered all priests out of political office. The 1983 Code of Canon Law formalised that, banning priests for “sharing in the exercise of civil power”.

Any such ambiguity as existed in the 1970s clearly does not any longer. A bishop cannot serve in parliament, even worse a faux-parliament in Beijing which has the blood of Catholics on its hands.

Much was made of the Holy Father’s emotion as he welcomed Bishop Guo to the synod. Certainly then he would have wept over the news delivered by Cardinal Zen. Whether Bishop Guo weeps we do not know, but there are likely to be tears among those in his flock.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of