The long road and “accidents along the way”
The sequence of Vatican summits devoted to the “Chinese question” over the last decades is evidence of the ever sharper perception of the Chinese Catholic situation reached by the Vatican. An empirically acquired close-up, which might be of use for the heralded papal letter to the Catholics of the former Celestial Empire
by Gianni Valente
The bishop of Shanghai Aloysius Jin Luxian imposing his hands on Joseph Xing Wenzhi during his episcopal ordination on 28 June 2005
The Vatican summit in January was not the first of the kind, and it won’t be the last. The previous meeting of “experts” and high Vatican functionaries on the situation of Chinese Catholicism occurred in 2001. But it has been for almost thirty years that, with occasional meetings and business as usual in the offices, the China dossier has kept the Holy See busy in an altogether special way. The series of Vatican interventions on the subject can also be read as a progressive “adjusting” of the aim, the outcome of the ever sharper perception of the Chinese Catholic situation reached by the Vatican. An empirical close-up which may be of use for the imminent papal letter to the Chinese Catholics announced at the Vatican summit in January, the contents of which have already been described, not accidentally, as «prudent» by the outspoken Cardinal Zen.
The “special faculties” of the ’eighties
When at the end of the ’seventies, under the leadership of the “little helmsman” Deng Xiaoping, China woke from the collective nightmare of the cultural revolution, a new phase, uncertain and unpredictable, seemed to open for the Chinese Catholics also. Churches and diocesan curias reopened. Bishops, priests and faithful left the Laogai [work camps for rehabilitation ed.], while the government invited everyone to go back to their posts, officially restoring the religious policy of the “three autonomies”, that had also been swept away during the years of revolutionary terror: to be granted legitimacy in the new socialist order every Church and religious confession present on Chinese soil would reorganize respecting the rules of self-government (ridding itself of any form of hierarchical subjection to central and foreign authority), of self-funding and of self-propagation (renouncing any formal dependence on the activity of foreign missionaries). Meanwhile, a new epoch began also for the Catholic Church in those years. Precisely in 1978 the throne of Peter was ascended by the Pole Karol Wojtyla, who in a Krakow occupied by the Nazis had attended courses at the semi-clandestine seminar of Archbishop Sapieha, and who set the dismantling of the communist regimes of the East among the geopolitical priorities of his pontificate.
Pope Benedict XVI with some Chinese from Beijing, 25 May 2005
But among those who returned from the rehabilitation camps there were those who opted for different paths. In the province of Hebei, traditional “stronghold” of Chinese Catholicism, many communities refused to resurface from the underground in which they had spent the period of the cultural revolution. They believed that by then no accomodation was possible with a regime that, good as it might get, seemed to want to reduce the Church to a religious department of the state apparatus. At that time the bishop of Baoding, Joseph Fan Xueyan, free after long years of captivity, began to prepare young men for the priesthood and above all, in the course of 1981, without having received any mandate from the Apostolic See, took the initiative of consecrating three new bishops, outside the control of the Patriotic Association.
On 12 December of that same year a dispatch from the Vatican seemed to confer the pontifical placet on the path taken by Fan Xueyan. That day the Brazilian cardinal Agnelo Rossi, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, sent a letter to Monsignor Paolo Giglio, “chargé d’affaires” of the apostolic nunciature in Taiwan, asking him to also communicate the contents of the Vatican missive with discretion «to the legitimate bishops of continental China and only to those, amongst them, to whose behavior and fidelity there is, in his judgement, nothing to object». In the letter (recorded at the offices of the Congregation for the Evangelization of peoples with protocol number 5442/81) it is made known that the Pope, so as not to leave the «martyred Christianity» of China «further deprived of legitimate pastors», and «in the impossibility in which the Holy See finds itself of providing directly», it has decided to authorize «the legitimate bishops loyal to the Holy See» to «take the initiatives they retain necessary for the spiritual good of Catholics», for «the entire Church that lives in the same Republic». For that purpose the Chinese bishops are granted “very special faculties”, including that of «choosing and ordaining their own coadjutor bishops» or the bishops of their neighboring dioceses that have remained without legitimate pastors. In the case of difficulty of communication or of urgency, such ordinations may take place without informing the Holy See beforehand. The letter recommends prudence, discretion and sense of responsibility in the use of the special faculties granted. But the effect of the letter on the affairs of the Chinese Church was to be shattering.
Only dating from that Vatican “green light” can one speak of the beginning and of the rapid spread over the land of China of a “clandestine” ecclesial structure with canonical approval. While in the years of Solidarnosc one glimpsed the first cracks opening in the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, the bureaucrats of Beijing feared the rise in China of an “antagonist” ecclesial area outside the control of the religious Patriotic policy. Already in 1982 the Central Committee of the Communist Party, in the official document devoted to the religious question, was giving out the invitation to «harshly crush» the clandestine communities that «with the excuse of religion are carrying on harmful spying». Bishop Fan was also to return soon to prison. Ten years later, in 1992, after the nth period of detention, the police were to hand over his lifeless body to his relatives in a plastic bag.
A girl confessing in Beitang Cathedral in Beijing
But soon the Holy See was called on to deal with the rise up of a further phenomenon.
From the early ’eighties an increasing number of illegitimately ordained bishops took advantage of the renewed contacts with missionaries and foreign priests to send letters to Rome in which they declared their full communion with the Pope and the desire to be recognized as legitimate bishops. So, while the clandestine network developed in virtue of its proclaimed fidelity to Peter’s successor, the bishops subjected to the political control of the Patriotic Association tried the path of canonical sanatio to also affirm their communion with the Pope, kept hidden because of external conditions, but never renounced in their hearts.
In those years the split between the two sections of Chinese Catholicism widened to a rending division. In late 1987 a document with 13 points containing questions and answers began to circulate. It was attributed to Bishop Fan but was the work of his controversial adviser Zhang Dapeng, a former member of the nationalist party, then become an impassioned militant communist, who radically influenced the direction taken by the clandestine Catholic community which in the end he began to frequent. Among other things the document stated that Catholics could not receive the sacraments nor attend the masses of the priests registered with the Patriotic Association. «If they do they commit sin. If they go to confess to their priests not only will they not obtain absolution, but they will have committed another sin».
Given the constantly shifting situation, on which information was still scarce, the Vatican departments found it difficult to calibrate decisions and provide directions that took account of all the factors in play. Out of that came dispositions and suggestions apparently lacking in coherence.
From 1983 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith subjected the illegitimate episcopal ordinations of the Chinese bishops to profound scrutiny, fully confirming their validity in 1985 (cf. 30Days, no. 5, May 2004, pp. 8-15) and the consequent validity of the sacraments administered by them.
Despite that, some years later, various directives coming from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples testified to an enduring underlying distrust of the whole ecclesial section subject to the government bodies. In 1988 John Paul II approved 8 points that became known as the “eight Tomko points”, from the name of the Slovak cardinal at that time in charge of the Vatican department for the missions. In point 4 it was asserted that the validity of the sacraments administered by priests ordained by illegitimate bishops was only “presumed”. To receive the sacraments, Catholics should «look for loyal priests, that is in communion with the Pope. Nevertheless, for the needs of their spiritual good, they can also turn to the other priests». In point 5 it was stated that «every communicatio in sacris with bishops and churchmen belonging to the Patriotic Association was to be avoided.Wherefore, on journeys outside continental China, they cannot be invited or admitted to celebrate liturgical acts in Catholic churches or institutions. The behavior of bishops and churchmen who visit continental China should be guided by the same principles».
At the same time, the initiatives undertaken by certain leaders of the clandestine communities also failed to please the Vatican. In the February 1989 some clandestine bishops wrote to Rome speaking of their intention to constitute a regular Bishops’ Conference. In the following September, Cardinal Tomko sent a letter to Monsignor Adriano Bernardini, the chargé d’affaires of the Vatican nunciature to Taiwan, asking him to pass on its contents to the clandestine bishops backing the initiative. In the key passage of that he stated that the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, «while understanding the no doubt just reasons driving the interested parties to formulate the proposals mentioned above, believes that for now it is not opportune that they be implemented». Despite the Vatican non placet, on 21 November 1989 a score of people in charge of clandestine communities met in a small village in Shaanxi and founded the Bishops’ Conference of Chinese Catholics. In the following months, the majority of those who took part in the meeting suffered brief periods of detention. No public denial of the Bishops’ Conference came from the Holy See, but neither did any formal recognition.
The 1993 meeting
The first half of the ’nineties was a decisive watershed in the process of gradual comprehension of the real situation of the Chinese Church. The periodic campaigns of repression aimed at the “clandestine” communities continued to be recorded with apprehension. But notice was also taken of the fact that sometimes “underground” priests and bishops went around the countryside and cities, ordaining other bishops without control, and insisted on proclaiming the “invalidity” of liturgies and sacraments celebrated in the “open” churches. With the persecution over, just when it had become easier for millions of Catholics to pray, go to mass and approach the sacraments, such ideological strictures with their Donatist tones were raising doubts about the sacramental grace operating through such means of salvation. The quarrels among Christians were in danger of obscuring the fact that the salus animarum is the supreme reason of the presence of the Church in the world.
A priest celebrating Easter mass in the church of Saint Teresa in Shanghai
Faced with this slow but clear evolution, the more conservative sectors in the Chinese bureaucratic apparatus attempted to take countermeasures. In September 1992, at the closure of the fifth national Conference of the Chinese Catholic representatives (a non-ecclesial body, easily “manipulated”, in which the bishops were a minority), approval was given to the new statutes of the Bishops’ College. In them, for the first time in a document signed by the bishops themselves, there was mention of the notorious «principles of freedom and self-government that befits the Chinese situation». In addition, some expressions seemed to indicate the subjection of the Bishops’ College to the Patriotic Conference of Catholic representatives. The reiterated rules for the nomination and the “democratic” election of bishops guaranteed the Patriotic bodies ample control. In the rite of ordination, the apostolic pontifical mandate still appeared to be replaced by the consent of the Chinese Bishops’ College.
In the Vatican, in those months, the question was whether to continue along the path taken, that of fulfilling the requests for canonical legitimization coming from bishops ordained according to the “democratic” procedures imposed by the government. The possibility of shifting to a harder line emerged, calling on the bishops to declare their loyalty to the Pope and breaking off their submission to the Patriotic Association, even resigning from the “Patriotic” Bishops’ College. Cardinal Tomko seemed especially alarmed by the «full alignment of Catholics and Church on the politics of the Party», as he wrote in a letter of 3 April 1993 to Monsignor Fernando Filoni, now nuncio to the Philippines and at that time assigned tothe study center of the Holy See in Hong Kong (a kind of “unofficial nunciature” that the Vatican still maintains in the former British colony, currently headed by Monsignor Eugène Nugent).
In a meeting called on 26 September 1993, the Vatican churchmen responsible for the Secretariat of State and Propaganda Fide that were concerned with Chinese affairs dealt with all the controversial questions that had been accumulating on the matter. From the Vatican summit concrete indications emerged both for the “clandestine” and for the “open” communities. It was established that, from then on every episcopal ordination would require the assent beforehand of the Apostolic See if it were to be considered legitimate. The special faculties granted in 1981, that had led to the development of the clandestine episcopal network, were not revoked but shelved (and in fact, since the second half of the ’nineties no nihil obstat to the celebration of “clandestine” ordinations has come from Rome). Whereas the bishops who accepted to be ordained according to the procedures piloted by the Patriotic Association, «given the greater ease of communication currently existing», they too were to request and receive the prior approval of the Holy See before ordination; they must seek to have as consacrants legitimate bishops in that «the active participation of illegitimate bishops cannot but make more difficult the acceptance of a subsequent request for regularization». Additionally, «in the time and in the fashion that people concerned believe opportune and possible», they were to make «public the assent of the Holy See, in the case of illegitimate episcopal ordinations, and the regularization of the situation of the person concerned, in the case of the legitimization of illegitimate bishops». The bishops recognized by the government were also exhorted to defend with greater courage «the rights of the Church and communion with the Roman Pontiff». In effect, at the following Assembly of the Catholic representatives in January 1998, the bishops claimed the leadership of ecclesial arrangements with more vehemence.
In those years a decisive contribution to the overcoming of distrust and suspicion was made by the Chinese seminarians and the priests educated in the “official” seminaries who left China in ever larger numbers to complete their training in the Catholic academic institutions of other countries, including the pontifical universities of the Eternal City. But also the attitude towards them also went through a process of growing “familiarization”. At the beginning, in the aim of leaving no room for misunderstandings and distrust, the Congregation of Propaganda Fide led by Tomko established that all the Chinese priests coming from dioceses whose bishop was illegitimate, had to sign a profession of faith if they wanted to have full communicatio in sacris with their foreign colleagues. But the disposition caused some concern even among the churchmen of the Secretariat of State concerned with Chinese affairs. In December 1993, with the same shrewd terseness that would later mark him as nuncio to martyred Iraq, the Vatican “factotum” in Hong Kong, Fernando Filoni, wrote to Cardinal Tomko challenging the benefits of the move, «not only for the reaction that might occur among the Chinese clergy, but also because I believe that substantially the priests that are being ordained nowadays in China profess the same faith as the Catholic Church». Some months later, in March 1994, in another letter to Tomko, Filoni insisted in his request for a «softening» of the rule forbidding full sacramental communion with priests and bishops registered with the Patriotic Association. «The faith in China», he wrote, «is that of the Universal Church, even if currently its demonstration is expressed in different degrees, and there are no doubts about the validity of the sacraments». Additionally, «in the effort to rebuild step by step relations between the Chinese and Universal Church, gestures of reception rather than separation must be made». Again two years later, in January 1995, the Vatican departments had nothing to offer the excited Chinese priests come to Manila with heaps of government “controllers” to see the Pope and participate in the World Youth Day than the bureaucratic request to “demonstrate” their full Catholic faith by reciting the formula professionis fidei in public if they wanted to concelebrate with the Holy Father (then, in that circumstance, everything was resolved more soberly with a Creed recited together with other religious).
Since 2000, the flexible willingness of the Vatican to take account of the real situations has opened the way to ever more acceptable interim solutions to the crucial problem of the ordination of bishops. Since 2004 the list of young Chinese bishops recognized by the government after have being publicly appointed by the pope and at the same time “elected” in formal respect of the rules imposed by the pro-government bodies that control the Church has gone on lengthening. The most recent “tacitly consensual” nomination of this type, that of the forty-two-year-old Gan Junqiu as future bishop of the important diocese of Guangzhou, was publicly announced by the leadership of the Patriotic Association on 18 January last, precisely on the eve of the Vatican summit. Seen in the light of the long and tangled history of relations among the Chinese Church, Beijing government and the Holy See, the last episcopal nominations that occurred without the apostolic mandate (described as «accidents along the way» by the Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone) may indeed be the dying reflex of a past that doesn’t want to pass.