Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Battle of the Bishops

In China there is only one Catholic Church, and everyone wants to be led by the Pope.

Thus thundered the Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, in a growing dispute over the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops in China. What is unusual about this latest brouhaha is that it has broken out into the public.

That occurred earlier this month when Pope Benedict XVI publicly condemned Beijing for moving ahead with the consecration of two new bishops in the “official” church, known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, without Papal approval.

The issue of appointing bishops is one of the main obstacles to normalization and reconciliation of the two churches. Until the latest dispute broke out, the two sides had made considerable progress toward a working agreement whereby the Vatican appointed bishops, subject to confirmation by the Chinese government.

Despite what Cardinal Zen says, two Catholic churches have existed on the Chinese mainland since the Communist Party took power – the Patriotic Association, whose members are allowed to practice their faith openly and an “underground” church of Catholics loyal to Rome.

The former exists in a spiritual twilight zone, cut off from normal intercourse with the Holy See and the worldwide Catholic community. Its priests and bishops are “self-appointed” and “self consecrated”, and lacking the blessing of God’s anointed representative on Earth.

The “underground church” exists in an official twilight zone, technically illegal, though usually tolerated, its priests and bishops running the risk of arrest for practicing Mass in public. As recently as a year ago, Beijing send some elderly priests and bishops to prison.

So in some ways, the dispute was a revelation of just how far the two churches have moved toward each other in recent years. The Pope took grave exception to the appointment of the two new bishops, because, for the past several years, Rome has been appointing bishops of the official church, subject to confirmation by Beijing.

It is similar to the practice in some other countries with Catholic populations that are run by the Communist Party, such as Vietnam and Cuba, and is a key element, along with the Vatican’s official ties with Taiwan, to the reconciliation and merger of the two churches.

Beginning in the late 1970s, when China began to open up to the rest of the world, many bishops of the Patriotic Association quietly sought the blessing and forgiveness of the Pope, which was usually granted.

The government did not allow the official church to make the Pope’s approval public, but word spread, allowing the priests and bishops and lay people to live in peace with their faith while still part of the government-controlled church.

Several years ago the two sides evidently came to an understanding that allowed the Vatican to choose bishops of the official as well as the underground church. In 2005 the Bishops of Shanghai and Xian, two important Chinese cities, were chosen by the Holy See and then “confirmed” by the Chinese Council of Bishops.

The Vatican apparently had reservations about the appointment of Ma Yinglin as the Bishop of Kunming. Ma, the secretary-general of the Council of Bishops, was a clerical bureaucrat, with little pastoral experience and no particular affinity for his new diocese in southern China.

The official church hierarchy apparently lost patience with the Vatican’s foot-dragging in this case and went ahead with the consecration Ma and of the new Bishop of Wuhu, who was also appointed without the Pope’s approval.

Liu Bainan, Secretary General of the Patriotic Association, was defiant in the face of the Pope’s criticism. The official church, he said, “had been selecting and consecrating bishops for more than 50 years without anyone’s interference.”

That brought a strong retort from Cardinal Zen, who never minces words, especially about the Chinese leadership. He called on both parties to suspend negotiations because Beijing had “destroyed trust.” “First they engage in dialogue, and then they deal in “fait accomplice”

Why did this confrontation flare up at a time when it looked like the two churches were making progress in resolving their differences and moving toward reconciliation? After all, it was widely believed that reunification of the Chinese churches was a priority of the new Pope.

His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, visited 129 countries during his long papacy, but he never set foot in China. But Pope John Paul carried too much baggage , stemming from his role in helping to end Communist Party rule in his native Poland.

The communist rulers in Beijing don’t have to look to Poland to see some of their worst fears realized. The Bishop of Hong Kong is probably exactly the kind of politically active cleric that the Chinese communists fear will emerge in China proper if they loosen control over church affairs on the mainland.

Cardinal Zen has been a leader of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and has helped to promote and organize large demonstrations against the Hong Kong government. He has even marched in those parades.

Meanwhile, China installed another new bishop last Sunday without the Pope’s approval, adding further fuel to the fire. And more such appointments are on the way. Some 40 bishoprics of the 90 or so official dioceses in China are said to be vacant since many of the original elderly bishops have passed on. The need to fill them, says, Liu Bainan, is “urgent.”


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