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from issue no. 05 - 2010

Beijing wants bishops appointed by the Pope


How and why ordination of Chinese bishops can usher in a change of pace in the relations between the Holy See, the Church in China and the Chinese government on the issue of episcopal appointments


by Gianni Valente


On the long haul in the relations between the Catholic Church and China, important changes of pace have often taken place quietly, made known only by events ignored or dismissed without appropriate explanation even by specialized agencies, used to loud tones. Certain recent happenings beyond the Great Wall hint, in their sui generis ordinariness, at a possible, imminent and decisive shift in the issue of the appointment of bishops, the sore point, the most sensitive issue among the anomalies experienced by the Chinese Catholic Church for nearly sixty years.

The episcopal ordination of Paul Meng Quinglu as bishop of Hohhot, 18 April 2010 [© Ucanews]

The episcopal ordination of Paul Meng Quinglu as bishop of Hohhot, 18 April 2010 [© Ucanews]

The facts
Since December 2007, despite the numerous vacant diocesan seats or those still led by bishops over eighty, there have not been any episcopal ordinations in China. The shutdown came to an end last 18 April, with the consecration of the forty-seven year old priest Paul Meng Quinglu as bishop of the diocese of Hohhot in Inner Mongolia, followed closely by those of forty year old Joseph Shen Bin, ordained bishop of Haimen (Jiangsu Province) on 21 April, of forty-four year old Joseph Cai Bingrui, ordained bishop of Xiamen (province of Fujian) on 8 May, and of fifty-two year old Joseph Han Yingjin, ordained bishop of Sanyuan (Shaanxi Province) on 24 June last. All four young bishops had received the papal mandate and the recognition of the Chinese authorities. In addition to their four ordinations there was also the official inauguration ceremony on 8 April for Mattias Du Jiang as head of the diocese of Bameng. The bishop was consecrated as early as 2004, with the approval of the Holy See, but the civil authorities had never authorized the public expression of his episcopal status. Over time, the political orientation of local officials has changed, to the point of giving full recognition to Bishop Du as head of the diocese, it too in Inner Mongolia.
Some details and the background of the inauguration and of the four new episcopal ordinations merit attention. In the liturgies of consecration, the consecrating bishops were all legitimate, in full and declared communion with the Bishop of Rome. At least in one case, the notion that the principal consecrant would be an illegitimate bishop – Vincent Zhan Silu, bishop without papal mandate of Mindong, who did attend the consecration in Xiamen – proved wrong on the occasion of the rite. Another illegitimate bishop – Joseph Ma Yinglin, vice president of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association – took part in the inauguration ceremony of the Diocese of Bameng, but in that case, the clergy, nuns and lay people present had negotiated with government officials that he would not be the principal celebrant of the Mass, and during the celebration, Bishop Ma Yinglin, took a place among the priests. At the Mass for the ordination in Xiamen Monsignor Joseph Cheng Tsai-fa, Archbishop Emeritus of Taipei, a native of Xiamen itself, which lies on the Chinese coast opposite the island of Taiwan, also participated among the celebrants. It was the first time that a Taiwanese bishop, Monsignor Cheng, participated in an episcopal ordination celebrated on mainland China. The see of Xiamen had been vacant for twenty years.
With significant alacrity, just days after the mini-sequence of new episcopal ordinations, two prominent Chinese academics were interviewed by the Global Times – an English-language newspaper that serves to make the views of the Chinese Communist Party known abroad – on the ordination of bishops in the context of relations between China and the Vatican. In addition to repeating some classic issues of government religious policy, the two intellectuals, Chinese Party members, also diverged decisively from the classical scenario. Zhuo Xinping, director of the Institute for World Religions of the Chinese Social Sciences, after making a comparison between the “historical conflicts” that had arisen in the past between the European States and the Church on the mechanism of appointing bishops, declared that the “minimal” request of the Chinese government was “that the bishops appointed by the Vatican be approved by the government, as was the case historically for other religions”, when instead “the Vatican firmly maintains the idea that the ordination of bishops is a matter of religious freedom”. Whereas according to Liu Peng, Director of the Pushi Institute for the Social Sciences, he too interviewed by the Global Times, the recent evolution in relations between China and the Vatican shows that “the Chinese government respects the beliefs of Catholics more, and better understands that the Vatican’s appointment of bishops is a key element of the Catholic tradition”. In Sino-Vatican relations the very question of episcopal appointments now tops the list of unresolved issues. “But it is”, Liu suggested, “a religious rather than a political matter. And if a bishop can be recognized by both the Vatican and the Patriotic Association, then that Bishop will have more religious authority”.

What the facts suggest
In the its decades of power in the People’s China, the communist regime’s religious policies aimed at eliminating all legal-canonical ties between the Church in China and the Apostolic See, depicted in propaganda as an imperialist body. Even after the bloodiest phases of persecution – as when Christians, along with multitudes of their countrymen, suffered during the Cultural Revolution – the patriotic bodies of “democratic” self-management inspired by the Party (with the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association in the forefront) were there to ensure that the Church should proceed along the path of the “three autonomies” – independence, self-determination and self-financing – also in the procedures for the appointments of bishops, to be made in total independence from the Holy See. In 1958 the consecration of bishops without papal consent began. As the Ucanews agency wrote last 21 April, even after the “reopening” policy inaugurated by Deng Xiaoping at the end of the seventies, “China did not allow any candidate to be ordained bishop, if it was known that he had the papal mandate”. The communion of the bishops with the Pope could only take the shape of an inner conviction without any canonical expression. Not least for this reason, an “underground” episcopal network was rapidly structured from the early eighties on, with bishops in communion with Rome ordained outside all government control.
Against that background the new scenario outlined by the recent behavior and words of the Chinese leadership represent a kind of Copernican revolution. What filtered through the statements of the two Chinese academics was, that for the first time, the papal appointment of bishops is explicitly recognized as a condicio sine qua non, an indispensable element in the dynamic of the legitimate episcopal ordinations of the Catholic Church. A conception already at work in the recent appointments, and in those that might come. In political-diplomatic circles it is said that a roster of more than fifteen names of possible candidates for the leadership of an equal number of vacant episcopal sees has arrived in the Vatican from Beijing. And it so happens that the young priests mentioned in the list from China correspond largely to those already identified by the Holy See as possible future bishops.
In this sense, the recent ordinations of bishops and those in the near future can be read as a test of a possible pro tempore framework agreement between mainland China and the Vatican on the question of episcopal appointments. In his interview with the Global Times Professor Peng Liu spoke of bishops “approved by both parties” and hinted at the guidelines of such an agreement: “When China decides to approve the ordination of a bishop”, the Chinese academic said, “it sends a list of possible candidates to the Pope through some private channel, and then they choose them together”. A simple scheme, that through local selection mechanisms such as that entrusted to representatives of the parishes, brings forward the names of candidates approved by the government and then submit them to the Holy See which would have the last, binding word. Thus the frightening specter of a do-it-yourself Chinese Church, a haunting possibility for a long time now, would be tacitly exorcized forever. And the possibility of further illegitimate episcopal ordinations would be definitively excluded.

Two girls during a Christmas performance before midnight mass in a Beijing church [© AFP/Getty Images]

Two girls during a Christmas performance before midnight mass in a Beijing church [© AFP/Getty Images]

Between saying and doing
If the potential road map for a gradual solution of the episcopal appointments snag seems outlined, it is not to be taken for granted that things will run smoothly all along the way. No agreement could come into force without guarantees for the so-called “underground” Catholic communities, that the civil authorities and the police forces sometimes tolerate and sometimes put under pressure, considering them outside the legal framework. The cases of bishops and priests still subject to forms of detention or obligatory residence should also be resolved beforehand. And friction might arise partly because of a possible upcoming Committee of Catholic representatives. This assembly is the greatest sphere of the application of the regime’s religious policy towards the Catholic Church. It is the meeting ground of delegates from all the dioceses registered with the state administration and is periodically convened to designate posts in the official bodies of the Chinese Church, including the College of bishops (a body not recognized by the Holy See and consisting only of bishops recognized by the government), which has been without a president since the death of Joseph Liu Yuanren, the illegitimate bishop of Nanjing who died in 2004. The new fact is that at the end of its annual meeting on 25 March last the Vatican Commission on the Church in China issued an official statement which urged the Chinese bishops to avoid “making gestures (such as, for example, sacramental celebrations, episcopal ordination, attending meetings) that contradict communion with the Pope, who appointed them pastors, and that create difficulties, sometimes very distressing, within their ecclesial communities”. Now many of the bishops approved by the Pope may find themselves in difficulty due to the Vatican’s solicitation, should they be summoned as representatives of their dioceses to the next Committee. In mid-April, three of them anonymously confided to the Ucanews agency that the wish expressed by the Vatican Commission had put them “in a difficult position”. They noted that participation in an illegitimate ordination cannot be equated in gravity to eventual presence at a national congress “which has nothing to do with the spirit of the Church” since summoned by the government. “The officials will accuse you of not loving the country if you don’t take part in the meeting, and the work of the Church in all fields will become very difficult in the future”, said one of them. And another has admitted his intention to participate in passive fashion, should he be summoned, so as “to gain space for pastoral work and so as not to embarrass local officials”, adding that “it would be unrealistic not to go”.
Yet again, some of the Chinese bishops, though in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, might be exposed to the tirades of those who accuse them of capitulation and lack of reaction in the face of interference by the civil authorities in the life of the Church. Their numerous participation in a future meeting of the National Committee of Catholic representatives could also embarrass the Holy See. While a large-scale absence could provoke further motivation for retaliation from those sectors of the Chinese nomenclature who are against the line of dialogue opened with the Vatican.

Ways to avoid a new impasse
Even if a future convocation of the Committee were to open yet another critical phase in relations between Beijing and the Vatican, the proven ability to combine the clarity of directives and declarations of principle with flexible response to the shifts and changes in concrete situations and conditions on the ground in the given conditions, may help steer clear of this further obstacle.
It is precisely in this that the changed emphases of the Chinese leadership about the appointment of bishops suggest implications of notable import.
If the heirs of Mao and Deng have changed their minds and now take into serious account the papal appointment of bishops, this development cannot be attributed to courses of ecclesiology unlikely to have been taught to party cadres. The new decision-makers have merely taken heed that an illegitimate bishop has no authority among the faithful. “The last bishops appointed without papal mandate”, said the Chinese academic Ren Yanli in 30Days, “are isolated and no one wants to take the Eucharist from their hands during mass”. The Chinese leaders aim to maintain a certain social control over church activities. It is better for that purpose to deal with bishops who are socially respected and followed, rather than featureless and isolated puppets in the hands of the Religious Affairs section of the Party. The stated purpose of the Chinese leadership is not to interfere with or threaten the sacramental and apostolic nature of Chinese ecclesial reality: those things don’t interest them, nor do they seem to want to understand them very much. But this very neglect by the regime of the only things on which the Church is founded and which nourish it (“since it possesses no other life than that of grace”, Paul VI, Credo of the People of God) could now show itself to be a paradoxical ally in the gradual solution of yet unresolved problems in the relationship between mainland China and the Holy See. From Cyrus the Persian onwards, the whole history of salvation is strewn with the ironic conduct of civil powers who in pursuing their own worldly interests unintentionally facilitate over time the journey of the People of God. By approving the ordination of bishops chosen on the basis of their approval by the Apostolic See, even the Chinese government – in its own way and in what falls within its sphere of competence – can help implement the pastoral suggestions that Benedict XVI set out in his Letter to Chinese Catholics in May 2007. So that that in the rapidly developing China of today and tomorrow, the children who adhere to the faith of the martyrs of the twentieth century may easily enjoy the treasures of grace and “live peaceful and quiet lives with all devotion and propriety” ( 1 Tim 2, 2).


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