Home > Archives > 05 - 2004 > Elected “democratically”. Valid nevertheless
from issue no. 05 - 2004

After the recent attempts at “tacit accord” between Beijing and the Holy See on the nominations of “democratically” elected bishops.

Elected “democratically”. Valid nevertheless

For the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic, two bishops have been ordained with the assent of the government after making public the nominations received from the Pope. But the episcopal ordinations which have taken place up to now without the pontifical mandate are also sacramentally valid. As an investigation into the delicate question carried out by the Vatican departments in the first half of the ’eighties made clear …

by Gianni Valente

In the long road covered by relations between the Catholic Church and China the real changes have often taken place in an undertone, without fanfare. Two recent episodes, recorded without emphasis only by the specialized press agencies, could signal the silent entry into a new phase concerning the most delicate point of the anomaly the Chinese church has been living through for the past fifty years.
The episcopal ordination of John Baptist Tan Yanquan, coadjutor bishop of the diocese of Guanxi, 21 January 2003

The episcopal ordination of John Baptist Tan Yanquan, coadjutor bishop of the diocese of Guanxi, 21 January 2003

On 6 January last, for the first time since the foundation of the Chinese People’s Republic, the ordination of a bishop, thirty nine year old Pietro Feng Xinmao, nominated coadjutor of the small diocese of Hengshui, in the province of Hebei, took place with the recognition of the government and at the same time with the public and declared approval of the Holy See. Before his ordination the young bishop, chosen by the priests of the diocese, made the nomination received from Pope John Paul II known to the faithful. The ordination of thirty eight year old Zhang Xiawang as coadjutor bishop of the diocese of Jinan, in the province of Shandong at the end of April (it too with previous nomination and pontifical approval, made known by the candidate), was what suggested that it might not have to do with an isolated episodes.
Since 1958, when the Maoist regime gave control of the “democratic” elections of the Catholic bishops to the pro-government Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, the episcopal ordinations recognized by the government have occurred without pontifical - or without publicly declared pontifical - approval. For long years, under the pressure of civil powers, the disposition was that ad hoc formulae were inserted in the consecration rites and some of the customary ones omitted, this to signify the fact that the episcopal ordinations took place outside the jurisdiction of the Holy See, without any “Vatican interference” in the religious life of the country, in line with the 1982 Constitution which states that “religious groups and religious activities are not subject to any foreign domination”.
It was indeed in the early ’eighties that the episcopal ordinations under government control - in which priests who usually came out of the prisons and work camps of the cultural Revolution, were consecrated without approval by Rome - were the object of a detailed study by the Vatican. A study still useful today in decoding the real contents of the problematic relationship between the Holy See and the former Celestial Empire.
At that time, clarification by the Holy See offered the definitive solution to a very serious case. Some Chinese representatives of the Catholic underground, which rejected all compromise with the regime, raised doubts not only about the legitimacy, but about the very validity of episcopal consecrations without papal approval. Perplexities which were then shared by noted Catholic observers of the Church in China.
Sustaining the invalidity of those Episcopal consecrations also meant invalidating the priestly ordinations performed by those bishops and as a consequence the removal of the value and efficacy of the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession celebrated in the churches which the regime was beginning to reopen after the terrible years of the cultural Revolution. A treasure of grace and Christian comfort which many faithful could again draw on with a certain ease, often after having suffered persecution.

The Dongtang church in Beijing. Below, morning mass in the Cathedral of Fuzhou

The Dongtang church in Beijing. Below, morning mass in the Cathedral of Fuzhou

Requests for reconciliation
What set the Vatican departments in motion was a request which reached Rome from a Chinese bishop, ordained at the beginning of the ’eighties without pontifical mandate, who asked in a confidential way to be recognized as legitimate bishop by the Apostolic See. The Congregation of Propaganda Fide submitted the question to John Paul II, receiving from the Pope himself the task of studying the subject further «to clarify doubts that might possibly exist about the validity of the ordination itself, given that the main consecrant and the two co-consecrants are not legitimate». In 1983 the request for doctrinal clarification came to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to whose sphere of competence it belonged. Following the indications of the late lamented Monsignor Jean Jérôme Hamer, then Secretary of the Vatican department and subsequently made cardinal, a thick dossier was compiled a bit like an “investigation and hearing”, on which many consultants of the former Holy Office expressed favorable opinions about the validity of the ordinations in question.
On the basis also of this operation, concluded in 1985, the Holy See has continued to consider the episcopal ordinations in China fully valid, beyond all reasonable (or pretended) doubt.

The essential conditions
But how is the validity or invalidity of an episcopal ordination determined? Comparing the teaching of the Church with information on the complex Chinese situation obtained also from their own archives, the research done by the Vatican departments aimed to check whether the essential requirements for sacramental validity were fulfilled in the “patriotic” Chinese ordinations. Beginning with the consecrating and consecrated subjects.
The Catholic Church recognizes and reserves the power to ordain new bishops to all bishops who in their turn were validly consecrated, even if their valid consecration turns out illegitimate because not accompanied by the mandate or approval of the Bishop of Rome. Only those who have received valid apostolic succession can in their turn transmit it. So the entire group of consecrants for all the illegitimate ordinations (those without mandate or papal acceptance, that is) were minutely checked from 1958 to 1982, to clarify that there were no interruptions in the lines of apostolic succession.
Faithful at prayer around the sanctuary of She Shan, near Shanghai, on the annual pilgrimage of 24 May

Faithful at prayer around the sanctuary of She Shan, near Shanghai, on the annual pilgrimage of 24 May

As was known in the West, through the news coming from China through the missionaries still in Hong Kong, in almost all ordinations up to 1964, the consecrants were legitimate bishops, who often agreed to consecrate the bishops elected “democratically” without in their hearts accepting the idea of a Chinese Church “independent” of Rome, but only to assure the continuity of the ecclesial structure in times that were becoming ever more difficult. Once the Cultural Revolution was over, that had for long years annulled every public expression of Christian life, ordinations were resumed in 1979, performed this time by bishops who were themselves illegitimate. And all the priests consecrated bishops possessed the essential requisites required for the validity of the consecration, which are valid baptism and male sex.

“Touched-up” rituals. But not in essentials.
For an episcopal ordination to be valid, the rite of consecration must contain, in terms of content and form, various essential elements. The Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum ordinis of Pius XII (1947) indicated these essential elements as the imposition of the hands by the consecrating bishop on the candidate and the recital of the words of the “Prefatio” (the consecrating prayer), among which only those of the formula «Comple in sacerdote tuo ministerii tui summum, et ornamentis totius glorificationis instructum coelestis unguenti rore santifica» («Accomplish in your priest the fullness of your ministry, and, garb him in the emblems of the highest dignity, sanctify him with the dew of the heavenly unguent») were explicitly said to be essential and required ad valorem.
All the information and the reconstructions of witnesses were weighed up, transmitted by missionaries in Hong Kong, who unanimously confirmed that all the consecrations of “patriotic” Chinese bishops were carried out according to the Roman Pontifical, in the old Latin editions, both before and after the Cultural Revolution. But they also confirmed the local pressures to omit or alter various parts of the ritual and so express the loyalty of the consecrated bishops to the government and avoid references to any legal tie with the Holy See.
A moment during the festival in front of the church of Niupidi in the village of Saint Joseph, in the southeast province of Guangdong

A moment during the festival in front of the church of Niupidi in the village of Saint Joseph, in the southeast province of Guangdong

These changes were submitted to rigorous analysis by the competent Vatican offices. In particular, the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics had printed in 1979 a small manual of Explanations of the Rite of the solemn mass for the ordination of a bishop. A magazine of the Church in China documented the facts also with photographs of the new episcopal ordinations. The book in question revealed the variations to be made to the Roman Pontifical, previous to Paul VI’s reform, which continued to be used in the liturgy of episcopal ordination. A careful synoptic reading made it easy to bring out the possible variants point by point.
In the initial formulae, the reading of the apostolic mandate was substituted by the reading of the act of “democratic” election by the people and the diocesan clergy. In the oath-taking formula all references to the Pope and the new bishop’s obligations of obedience to the Apostolic See were to be omitted, and expressions of a nationalistic and patriotic stamp inserted (“I guarantee to lead all the clergy and all the faithful of my diocese to obey the government, to love the Fatherland and keep its laws”), along with others that set out the undertaking to maintain “the principles of independence, self-determination and self-management of the Church”. Of the interrogationes addressed to the consecrand, the one that committed the candidate to sustaining, teaching and safeguarding «the decrees of the Holy and Apostolic See», and that in which he declared obedience to «the Apostle Peter, to the reigning Pope his Vicar and to his successors» were to be omitted. Even the promise to take particular care of the poor was to be omitted, in so far as it seemed offensive to the communist regime that could not tolerate the idea that there might be poor people in a country where the socialist system prevailed. Whereas it was considered necessary to introduce an ex novo formula in which the new bishop committed himself to «ridding himself completely of all the controls of the Roman Curia» and to walking decisively along the road of independence, self-determination and self-management of the Church.
The decision to insert this latter formula into the ritual was the most explicit expression of the intention not to allow any jurisdictional link between the Chinese bishops and the Holy See.
On the other hand, however, the very careful analysis of the texts confirmed that all the omissions and arbitrary insertions, even in the case where they were all effectively gone through in the celebration itself, though constituting an illegitimate ordination because of the absence of the pontifical mandate, concerned texts and aspects not essential to the purposes of the validity of the sacrament. It was no accident that in 1981 the Secretary of State himself, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, perhaps anticipating a possible positive solution of the problem of the Church in China, declared with specific reference to the Chinese episcopal ordinations that «what is illegitimate can, in certain conditions, be legitimated».
As for the formulae and the gestures that accompanied the imposition of hands, the ordinations without papal mandate of the Chinese bishops, as one could deduce from the copious documentation of the publications of the Church in China, followed the Roman Pontifical to the letter. Thus, in terms of matter and form, preserving all the elements essential for the validity of the consecration intact.

Quod facit Ecclesia
The other condition necessary for the validity of episcopal consecration is that the consecration should take place in the intention of doing what the Church does when it consecrates a bishop («intentio facendi quod facit Ecclesia»).
This point became the focus of the objections of those who, whether in continental China or as scholars in Hong Kong, raised doubts about the validity of the Chinese ordinations. According to some, any explicit declarations of independence from the jurisdiction of the Holy See and the censoring of all reference to the link with the Bishop of Rome, even though not compromising the validity of the consecrations from the point of view of matter and form, went against the necessary condition of consecrating new bishops in the intention of doing what the Church does when it performs episcopal ordinations. In the underground Chinese Church especially, led by bishops legitimately ordained, outside the control of the Patriotic Association, doubts about the validity of the “patriotic” ordinations had easy appeal.
But also on this point the information acquired from various witnesses, and noted in the press, when compared with consolidated doctrine, excluded the possibility that the “defect of intention” could be invoked to raise doubts about the validity of the Chinese ordinations.
In particular, on the question of intention, which went beyond the sphere of outward checkable facts to involve the subjective inner one of the consecrant and the consecrated, reference could be made to a passage from the Apostolicae curae (1896), the apostolic Letter of Leo XIII on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations, and some experts consulted in the Vatican inquiry did so. In it the principle was repeated that, given the Church’s inability to judge the inner intention in such cases, it was to be presumed that whenever the form and matter required for the administration of the sacrament were respected, the consecrant and the consecrated had intended to “do what the Church does” when consecrating bishops. In the case of the Chinese ordinations, and differently from the Anglican ordinations, the imposition of hands and the words of the consecratory preface of the Roman Pontifical, which constituted the prescribed form and matter, were used. And the intention to consecrate the bishops as true pastors was also evident, according to what the Church believes and professes about the episcopal ministry, even though outside the jurisdiction of the Holy See.
Faithful kneeling during Communion in the church of Nantang in Beijing

Faithful kneeling during Communion in the church of Nantang in Beijing

Many of the arguments about the opinions expressed by the experts consulted on the basis of the material collected concentrated on this delicate point. One of them wrote, among other things, that the oath did not seem necessarily to imply, on the part of the subject, a total breaking or separation from the faith of the Church such as it is professed in the Credo which the “patriotic” bishops themselves recited and got recited during the mass, confessing in this way the same faith as the Church of Rome.
To sweep away all doubt about the “Chinese case”, it was enough then to go back to the Catholic doctrine consolidated by centuries and compare with similar cases in the history, even the recent history, of the Church involving the validity of the sacraments administered by heretical or schismatic ministers. From Saint Gregory the Great to Vatican Ecumenical Council II, from Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas to the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983, the Magisterium and classical theology have recognized as valid those sacraments, where the necessary conditions of validity are fulfilled, on the basis of the fact that “the virtue of Christ which acts in the sacraments is not obstructed by the unworthy state of the minister”, as a passage from Pope Anastasius II quoted in the opinion of one of the experts affirms. The canonical sanctions which fall on the bishops consecrated without the approval of the Apostolic See nullify the jurisdictional and teaching acts performed by them. But they cannot invalidate the sacramental acts, performed in virtue of the potestas ordinis or potestas sanctificandi which is “irrevocable” in that it results from the sacrament itself and concerns the ontological aspect of the person. Pius XII himself, in the encyclical Ad Apostolorum Principis of 1958, established, precisely in regard to the Chinese case, that the bishops ordained illegitimately and their consecrators had incurred ipso facto the excommunication «specialissimo modo» reserved to the Holy See. But he had recognized the validity of these consecrations. And then were the people involved in those events indeed motivated by a real schismatic intent?

No Chinese schism
No Pope has ever considered that in the anguished affair of Chinese Catholicism a real schism was taking place. In the uncertainty caused not least by a lack of information, only John XXIII, in a famous speech to the Consistory on 15 December 1958, went so far as to abjure a «most grave danger of a disastrous schism», but he went no further.
Meanwhile in the case histories of Chinese episcopal ordinations valuable clarification had emerged from eye witnesses, received with eagerness during the Vatican inquiry. There was the testimony of numerous bishops who said they had pronounced the “indepedentist” formulae «only with their lips, but not with their heart». Many declared that they had been clever in correcting the formulae, with the agreement of the consecrant, omitting through feigned distraction, as they pronounced them, any expression that might indicate an explicit wish for independence from the Apostolic See. By way of example the story was told of a bishop «who did not want to take the oath and did not. A compromise was reached with the consecrating bishop in these terms: “Do you accept the control of a foreign Church?” he was asked. So he then asked what “foreign” meant. The bishop who was interrogating him replied: “Do you accept control and direction from Taiwan?” On other occasions no one knew what was really said between the consecrant and the consecrated because at that moment the church organ began to play loudly to prevent the words of the oath being heard.
Already by the early ’eighties the ever more numerous letters sent by illegitimate bishops to Rome with the request to be legitimated in confidential fashion by the Holy See confirmed that their whole situation ought to be judged in the light of the concrete circumstances in which it had taken place. All of them declared themselves absolutely certain of the validity of the ordination received. All of them stated that they had accepted the ordination without pontifical mandate for the purpose of guaranteeing the continuity of the Church in those circumstances, in the expectation of better times.
Faithful at prayer in the church of Saint Michael in Beijing

Faithful at prayer in the church of Saint Michael in Beijing

The fact was known in the circles of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide that letters written in Latin by old bishops were reaching the Holy See through trusted people, which asked the Holy Father for forgiveness and begged to be recognized as in full communion with the successor of Peter, giving as the reason for their actions the desire to save the salvable and not leave the flock without shepherds.
In that situation, the inquiry carried out by the Vatican departments, though leaving the decision to the authority of the Pope, looked favorably upon the reintegration of the supplicant bishops into the full exercise of their episcopal ministry following the criterion of the «“suprema lex” which is the salvation of souls». Nor was the collaboration owed by these bishops to the “patriotic” institutions controlled by the communist party presented per se as a matter precluding that possibility.
Already many experts on the Chinese case and visitors to China in the ’eighties were affirming, as against a too glib way of talking and reasoning, that it was not right to identify the National Patriotic Association, which was an institution of political control, with the part of the Church which in China accepted or tolerated such control. Indeed, many specialists in the Chinese ecclesial question already then judged the term “patriotic Church” itself unjust, given that bishops, priests and faithful even though registered in the patriotic Association were, and professed themselves to be, faithful to the Catholic faith and felt themselves to be in full communion with the Pope. The Vatican inquiry recognized that after the Cultural Revolution there was a relative freedom of movement, tolerated sometimes even within the Patriotic Association. It did not look as if the life of the Church in China was so politicized «as not to allow inner and outer space even to the bishops».
In effect, from the early ’eighties onward, an increasing number of bishops ordained under the “democratic” system, on condition of their petition and case by case consideration of their personal situation and the certainty of the validity of their ordination in terms of the requirements mentioned above, began to be recognized as legitimate bishops by the Apostolic See. But 30Days will deal with that story another time.

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