The Hong Kong bishop’s optimism over a change in the method of appointing bishops and the function of the Patriotic Association. But it is unclear whether it is real change or just nominal, in words. Underground bishops are patriotic and love their country, but the Party is suspicious of them. Freedom in episcopal appointments is “essential", but the bishops are not free to exercise their ministry. Patriotic bishops controlled in their visits with members of the universal Church. The "bugs" (hidden microphones) in a bishop’s office.
Rome (AsiaNews) - The latest article by Cardinal John Tong of Hong Kong on the relations between China and the Vatican has aroused joy and dismay. After the article published last August on "Communion of the Church in China with the universal Church", today he published a new chapter on dialogue between China and the Holy See entitled "The future of Sino-Vatican dialogue from an ecclesiological point of view ".
The joy comes from optimism combined with a sense of pragmatism (typical of the Chinese mentality) that dominates Card. Tong’s writing. The cardinal believes everything can be resolved: the Pope recognized as the supreme authority of the Church; the Patriotic Association change (PA) from being an instrument of control with compulsory membership to becoming a "voluntary" organization; the reconciliation of 7 illicit bishops (there were 8 but one died on 4 January); the future recognition of underground bishops; "essential" religious freedom of the Catholic Church guaranteed by the government (to be kept separate from religious freedom - and in part political freedom - of Xinjiang Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists).
Dismay emerges from a deeper by reading of the various proposed solutions to the difficulties of the Church in China. Quite rightly Card. Tong states that the core problem is "ecclesiological" - the very Catholic nature of the Church, without which it cannot exist - in short the issue of the appointment of bishops. The freedom to open schools, the return of seized property to the Church (though it is required by Chinese law), being able to spread the faith, all of these are secondary issues. Card. Tong calls these expressions of "complete freedom" which, "realistically" the church can do without, at least for now.
A change only in words?
But the crucial question of the appointment of bishops is not clear, if not misleading. For Card. Tong "the Pope must remain the last and highest authority in naming the bishops" and "[a candidate's] election by a given local Church is only a way to express the recommendations of the local Bishops' Conference". However, in reality this would allow the Council of Chinese Bishops - primed by the Patriotic Association and the Ministry of Religious Affairs – to choose the candidate, leaving the Pope with only the final blessing: a little nod to "the highest authority." According to AsiaNews sources from China who are closely following the dialogue, the government actually wants the Pope to hold only a veto power, and one that must be "motivated." And if the reasons are not acceptable, the Council of Bishops has the right to proceed with the ordination of their chosen candidate anyway. It is hard to understand if what the Card. Tong expresses is a hope, or if it is a way of reading the present situation, with a change of words, saying that the Pope chooses the candidate, but in reality appointments are independent. And the cardinal himself admits that the agreement "on the appointment of Bishops will not differ much from the present practical ways used by both parties"!
The acrobatics of a "voluntary" Patriotic Association
This acrobatic use of words is also evident on the PA which states its power over the " self-nomination and self-ordination” of bishops has been taken away, rendering it “a patriotic association in its strict, literal sense: a voluntary, non-profit, patriotic and Church-loving organisation composed of clergy and faithful from all around the country ". It is not clear whether these words are a wish, a dream, a reality or just a linguistic fiction. Until now the PA is by statute a "voluntary" association, but all the official bishops are forced to join. Those who dared to step down – such as Msgr. Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai - were immediately put under house arrest. And even now that Msgr. Thaddeus Ma Daqin has been re-registered, he remains in forced isolation in Sheshan seminary, stripped- at least from the point of view of the PA - of the title of "bishop", since it identified him only as "Fr. Ma”.
In addition, Card. Tong’s words cannot remove the reality of the PA control over the life and ministry of bishops. Just try to meet with the Bishop of Beijing, he will send you away because he cannot meet a foreign priest without permission. Just try to talk to a bishop in the PA and he will insist on meeting you outside his office, outdoors, not to be heard by the "bugs" (hidden microphones) placed everywhere.
From this point of view, the problem of freedom of the underground bishops is similar to that of the official bishops. Rightly Card. Tong writes that “the government attitude towards the unofficial communities has changed a lot in recent years compared with the 1980s", but that does not mean that there is no control, there are no arrests, there are no unjustified suspicions of "anti- patriotism". And this even though underground bishops such as Msgr. Julius Jia Zhiguo, have devoted decades to the care of his people, the sick, abandoned children, working for and with people, an example of a true, absolutely non-violent patriot. The point is that this commitment renders him "suspect". Prof. Richard Madsen, a sociologist of religions, notes that the government nourishes the suspicion that there are "too many non-state actors" doing good works and so "the government might feel cheated out of the opportunity to 'help people' and 'control people' and this gives rise to a potential conflict "because the government demands patriotism, but the Communist Party demands total submission and does not want its totalitarianism obscured.
After all, for years underground bishops (and official) have proposed to the government that they be registered at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, but not the PA, which wants to build an "national church” independent from the Holy See, but totally submissive to power of the Party. The same request was expressed by Card. Tong in his chapter on "the recognition of the Government of unofficial bishops", but the answer in all these years has always been a decisive "no". If it was a "yes" to this question, it would be the beginning of a new era in relations between China and the Vatican.
"Full freedom" and "necessary freedom"
The last section of the article is among the most intriguing. In it Card. Tong said that compared to the question of papal appointment of bishops, all other problems are secondary. This is true because the appointment of bishops touches the sacramental and dogmatic nature of the mystery of the Catholic Church. The problem stems from the fact that Card. Tong presents the method of appointment and election "sanatio" as a fait accompli, "this agreement - he says - is a major step forward”. I have already outlined serious doubts about this method that appears, on face value, to be just a nominalist change of words rather than substance, and moreover a change that reduces the papal blessing to the sole function of something already decided elsewhere and by others.
Another concern is the reduction of the term "essential freedoms" to the appointment of bishops without worrying about the exercise of their function. It is true that the "ways of spreading the faith, of managing educational institutions, the limited restitution of property are not a threat or do not harm the nature of the Catholic Church in China". But is this still the case if a bishop must ask permission to meet his guests of the universal Church? If a pastor is forced to take time off for months from his diocese to undergo brainwashing on the religious policy of the government-party? If a bishop is obliged to participate in an illicit Episcopal ordinations, which lack papal mandate? If they are threatened with sanctions and serious impediments to the exercise of their ministry because they tried to meet their own brothers in the underground Church?
Perhaps this "essential freedoms" should be a bit wider, otherwise it becomes difficult to understand the difference between a situation that has been agreed upon and one that has not. And then - as official and underground priests and bishops often say - "all agreements should be put off until we have guarantees of true religious freedom."