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from issue no. 12 - 2009

Between Rome and Beijing the sensus fidei unties the knots

The faith of the people has helped everyone to make the plan for a national independent Church ineffectual. For that reason also the government has shifted its policy. And it may also review the theoretical base of its policy toward Chinese Catholic communities. An interview with Ren Yanli, member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Interview with Ren Yanli by Gianni Valente

Ren Yanli, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Research Institute of World Religions, has for decades been following events in the Chinese Catholic Church and relations between mainland China and the Vatican. The advantage of speaking with him is that the professor knows how to put individual facts in the right historical perspective, without censuring the substantial changes made in relations between the Catholic Church and mainland China in recent decades. 30Days interviewed him at the headquarters of the “Giovanni XXIII” Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna during his recent visit to Italy.

Ren Yanli [© Ucanews]

Ren Yanli [© Ucanews]

Professor, misleading clichés on the situation of the Chinese Catholic Church continue to circulate.
REN YANLI: Chinese Catholics are Catholics like all the others. They have the same faith, they read the same Bible, freely go to church for Mass, to pray and receive the sacraments. Like other Catholics they love their homeland and want to participate in the life and modernization of China.
So where do the problems come from?
REN: There was a time when, for various reasons, it did not seem possible to love the homeland and love the Church at the same time. When the People’s Republic of China began, the Vatican was considered a political enemy of the new Communist China. And at the end of the ’fifties, at the height of the anti-imperialist movement that then dominated Chinese politics, the relation with the Holy See was cut and the Chinese Church was forced into the policy of independence and autonomous nomination of bishops. But already then, even those who out of patriotism, or by merely mouthing it, took that line soon ended by losing their spiritual tranquility. They behaved like divided people. How can a local Church be Catholic when it has no connection with the Apostolic See? And indeed, after the time of the misfortunate Cultural Revolution, with the reopening of China initiated by Deng Xiaoping, the dominant thinking of Chinese Catholics was that of recuperating, in the time and the ways they could, the relationship with the Holy See, the Pope and the universal Catholic Church.
A desire that has taken different paths to fulfillment.
REN: Some people gathered round secretly ordained bishops in communion with the Pope, and refused all relations and all control from political power. But even bishops who were ordained without the consent of the Apostolic See began taking the same road, asking to be recognized as legitimate by the Pope. They too, in fact, detached themselves from the prospect of independence. It was a general phenomenon and should be taken into account in its entirety.
How do you explain the phenomenon? What were the underlying causes?
REN: It’s increasingly clear to me that the decisive factor was the faith itself of Chinese Catholics, both laity and clergy. The priests were unwilling to become bishops if their appointment did not come from the Pope and if there was no apostolic mandate. Many new bishops at the beginning and end of their consecration wanted to show in public the letter of appointment received from the Pope, not least because they knew that the faithful would never heed pastors elected and consecrated autonomously, without the consent of the Pope. The last bishops appointed without papal mandate were isolated and no one wanted to take the Eucharist from their hands during Mass. In short, if in the past someone might have been tempted to make a career in an independent Church, the faith of the people helped everyone to make the design ineffectual. And that also helped the government to redirect its policy.
Where do you see this shift? Some say that the position of the Chinese regime is always strictly the same.
REN: If the government wants bishops to be pastors respected and followed by the faithful, and not be seen as isolated officials imposed from outside, now it has understood that appointment by the Pope, and full communion with him, are indispensable elements that cannot be done without. This means that the idea of imposing independence on the Church that separates it from Rome and the universal Church has been set aside in fact. The process leading to an ever more explicit affirmation of the communion of the Chinese bishops with the Pope – and everything that entails – is irreversible. There can be no backward turning on this path.
What do you think of the most recent phase in relations between China and the Vatican?
REN: To me it makes no sense to continue to talk of a thaw, because for quite a while now there hasn’t been any ice, and the two sides started many years ago to have direct contact. But the tug-of-war continues: every time that one side considers the initiatives of the other as unilateral attempts to cut it out, it takes action that can be construed as a counter move.
Some examples?
REN: Let’s start from 2005. All the bishops ordained in that year already had the appointment from the Pope in their pocket, before consecration. That whole year passed peacefully. In 2006, Bishop Joseph Zen of Hong Kong was created cardinal, and immediately in China they returned to electing bishops without the Pope’s mandate, in April and November. So a new phase of tough statements from the Chinese government and the Roman Curia opened. But in January 2007, when rumors spread that Benedict XVI was going to send a pastoral letter to the Church in China, the consecrations of bishops not approved by Rome came to a stop. That year even the new bishop of Beijing was elected with the consent of the Pope. But then in China the fiftieth anniversary of the Patriotic Association and the first appointments of bishops without a mandate from the Pope in 1958 was celebrated with much pomp. The political leaders at the ceremonies reiterated the line of independence the Chinese Church had to follow.
In short, a sign of tightening up, yet another step backwards.
REN: In that context, the Holy See published the Compendium of the Letter written by Benedict XVI in 2007. In an appendix to the new document it said that the Holy See, if needed, could again grant Chinese bishops the power to consecrate other bishops who could ask for papal approval at a later date. In practice, it was a sign that the special faculties which had been removed by the Pope’s Letter can be reattributed to the clandestine communities.
What reaction was there on the Chinese side?
REN: It might have been the beginning of a new phase of conflict. But then, when Hu Jintao came to Italy to participate in the G8, the Pope let him know he would be happy to receive him at the Vatican. The meeting couldn’t take place. But the Pope’s invitation was appreciated.
And now? How do we move forward?
REN: The eighth Congress of Chinese Catholics should have taken place in recent months. It’s the periodical assembly of delegates from the dioceses registered with the national Administration of Religious Affairs, which also has the task of distributing the posts at the top of the official bodies of the Church in China, such as the Patriotic Association and the College of Bishops, where there are vacant sees because the bishops that held the posts have died. Instead, the political authorities decided to postpone the Congress till 2010.
Distribution of Communion in the Xishiku Catholic Church in Beijing [© Sinopix/LaPresse]

Distribution of Communion in the Xishiku Catholic Church in Beijing [© Sinopix/LaPresse]

How do you interpret the postponement?
REN: Maybe they don’t want to force their hand. In Beijing they’ve understood that the heads of official bodies, to be truly recognized and respected, must be bishops in communion with the Pope. And legitimate bishops have a certain reluctance and it would be difficult to take up a posting if there were explicit opposition from the Holy See. It takes time to organize things so that the choice falls on the right man and everything runs smoothly. The Chinese politicians of today are pragmatic and tend to solve problems one at a time. Without blatant shifts. That said, I’m afraid that unless some basic problems get resolved there’s always the risk that abrasive and confrontational stages now bypassed by history may reopen, things that would always harm everyone.
What at this moment would halt the spiral of action-reaction you describe?
REN: The Holy See for its part would do well to take into account and involve the Chinese Church: as I said, all this time the loyalty of Chinese Catholics to the faith of the apostles has been the decisive factor also in the evolution of relations with the country’s political leadership.
And what do you expect from the Chinese political leaders?
REN: Last May an anonymous but influential Chinese figure made clear in a Hong Kong newspaper that the Beijing authorities might propose a revision of the categories of autonomy, independence and self-government as they are applied to the local Church. In seminars reserved to policy makers an issue on the agenda for some time now has been how to find a new definition of independence that distinguishes the ecclesial and faith aspect from the political one. The concept of independence can no longer be applied to aspects of Church life that have to do with faith, but is to be interpreted in political terms only.
What is the concrete significance of that? Can you give us a practical example?
REN: The government wants an assurance that the Church will not act as a political body. That Chinese bishops be independent of any eventual political and geopolitical orientation of the Roman Curia. In practice, they want to avoid the possibility that a bishop or possibly a nuncio attack government policy. That is why there are those in Beijing who persist in wanting to keep some control over the appointments of bishops.

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