Beijing and the Holy See: the unity of the Church before diplomatic relations
by Bernardo Cervellera
From December until today, despite many difficulties the Church in China has been trying to rebuild the path to unity between official and underground Catholics, dealt a severe blow by Communist Party strategies. The idea of the "Vietnam model". But Beijing’s fear of the "Jasmine Revolution" seems to prevail over interests in seeing reconciliation with the Church and society.

Rome (AsiaNews) - The Church in China and the Vatican are slowly recovering slowly from the shocks suffered at the end of last year and at this stage, both in the Holy See and in China, there are those who no longer attach too much importance to diplomatic relations.

The first shock came on November 20, 2010, when Fr Joseph Guo Jincai (pictured) was ordained Bishop of Chengde (Hebei) without papal mandate. The ordination took place in the church of Pingquan (Chengde) in the presence of eight official bishops, all legitimate, that is in communion with the Holy See. According to information of faithful from other dioceses, these bishops were forced to attend the ceremony, which offends communion with the pope.

An even greater setback for the Vatican and the Church arrived when at least 40 bishops were compelled by force to take part in the Assembly of Representatives of Chinese Catholics, a body Benedict XVI considers contrary to the Catholic faith. According to the Catholic Church, Bishops should always be the leaders of such assemblies, however in this case they are placed on a par with other members, and often are in a minority.

The Assembly was held in Beijing December 7 to 9, 2010, and saw the election of the new leadership of the Council of Chinese bishops (not recognized by the Pope because it does not include underground bishops) and the Patriotic Association, whose aims are irreconcilable with Catholic doctrine.

Thanks to the intelligent manoeuvrings of the Communist Party, Joseph Ma Yinglin, (illegitimate) Bishop of Kunming was voted the new chairman of the Council of Chinese bishops, Mgr. Johan Fang Xinyao of Linyi (in communion with the Pope) is instead the new leader of the Patriotic Association.

In this way, a body composed of bishops, is being led by a person not in communion with the Pope, while in the other case, a bishop in communion with the pope is placed in charge of a body contrary to the Catholic faith. The goal of all these decisions was to render reconciliation between the official and underground church difficult after the pope's Letter (of 2007) which called for a greater unity. It must be said that this unity was beginning to bear some fruit.

In both cases, the Vatican issued two statements strongly criticizing the Patriotic Association and the person who appears to be pulling the strings behind the scenes, layman Anthony Liu Bainian, vice president of the Association. While addressing the government with respect and leaving a small opening for possible future dialogue, both documents openly denounce the apparent lack of religious freedom and these "unacceptable and hostile acts."

From December until today, the Church in China has been trying to rebuild unity, with great difficulty, between official and underground Catholics. For the latter, in fact, the official bishops were too weak and submissive, disobeying the instructions of the Vatican (which explicitly asked them not to participate in events and acts contrary to communion with the Holy Father).

Among many official bishops there is embarrassment and pain for having been dragged into such an ambiguous situation. After the Assembly, because of their shame, some bishops hid in their houses for days, not wanting to meet with the faithful. Others appear to be on the slippery slope towards an absolute patriotism, contenting themselves with the space given them by the regime and critical of the Vatican “unable to understand” the specific motivations of China (in short a faith subject to government control)

This is all a source of immense disappointment, because it was thought that China had, to some extent, embarked on a peaceful path towards respect for religious freedom that would have eventually led to diplomatic relations. Even in the Vatican - which until now had been ready to accept any compromise with Beijing, turning a blind eye on many issues - is disappointed and frustrated.

However, China’s gesture, so hard and violent, has had its consequences, one in particular that is shared by many lay faithful: given that Beijing is not ready to accept that it is the Holy See that ordains bishops, the Vatican is better off slowing down efforts towards establishing diplomatic relations.

Bishops, official and underground, now believe that their most urgent task is to strengthen the unity of the Church, and that "the religious policy of the government has suffered a setback" (Wei Jingyi, bishop of Qiqihar).

It should also be noted that even personalities from the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing (such as Prof. Ren Yanli) consider this step by China a return to the atmosphere of the worst form of Maoism.

In such a precarious situation, it seems unlikely that low-level dialogue, which to date had characterised relations between Beijing and the Holy See, will or can continue.

However there are those in the Vatican who refuse to give up and still hope in a rethinking on China’s part, but it has become increasingly clear that the Holy See must remain firm and uncompromising in the fundaments of the faith and its politics. At the same the Vatican is pondering how to rebuild its relationship with the Bishops, the faithful and those who have proved themselves to be weak.

A new creative idea from the Vatican was revealed in Benedict XVI's address to the diplomatic corps. On 10 January, during the annual encounter, this year on the theme of religious freedom, the Pope focused on the case of China, denouncing the States suffocation of the Christian communities.

At the same time, as if to suggest a model of Church/State relationship to Beijing, immediately afterwards, Benedict XVI quoted the example of Cuba, a communist country, which has had diplomatic relations with the Vatican for more than 75 years. Later, the pope also cited positive developments with Vietnam, where authorities have " have accepted my appointment of a Representative who will express the solicitude of the Successor of Peter by visiting the beloved Catholic community of that country".

The "Vietnam model" could also be used for China: it does not imply diplomatic relations between States, but the states’ permission for the Vietnamese Catholics to have relations with the religious hierarchies related to their faith, thus ensuring their religious freedom. The Vatican representative to Vietnam almost certainly will not reside in Vietnam, but will visit the country, according to the demands of his ministry and the Vietnamese faithful.

The strong relationship between Vietnam (the "little brother") and China (the "big brother") is common knowledge in diplomatic circles. In the past, the two countries have copied each other in their openings to the world economy and to the WTO. They may also copy each other with regard to relations with the Catholic Church and the Vatican.

A similar structure – along the lines of the "Vietnam model" - has been suggested to the Holy See by some Italian bishops to overcome the obstacle of diplomatic relations with Beijing. They propose the appointment of papal representatives to areas around China (for example, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao, Taipei, ...) who would have the freedom to travel to China and meet the faithful and the Catholic bishops there.

Other personalities – who have a deep knowledge of China and are close to the Vatican - note that the absence of diplomatic relations is not an obstacle to the life of the Church in China, nor does it call into question the faith of Catholics. In other words, it is perfectly possible to support the Church in China without diplomatic relations. Indeed, some point out that at this point diplomatic relations would tend to alienate underground Catholics from the Vatican and humiliate the moral authority of the Holy See, because of the way in which China is treating its people and failing to respect human rights.

But the "Vietnam model" also has its problems: in fact it presupposes China’s good will towards the Holy See, so as to allow this still the choice of bishops and the pastoral visits of its representatives. Unfortunately, at the present time, China feels encircled by international pressure (for example the case of the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, whom Beijing calls a "criminal") and is terrorized by domestic problems (high cost of living, inflation, unemployment and the gap between rich and poor, pollution , ...) which are fomenting social tensions.

In addition, many dissidents, in their commitment to human dignity and rights discover their roots in Christianity and convert to the Christian faith. For Beijing, this unity between the dissidents and faith is their greatest fear.

The only possibility that Beijing will agree to a compromise with the Holy See is if the Holy See offers it a guarantee for social peace, which is the greatest need in China today.

So far, Beijing has not expressed its intentions. Meanwhile, many candidates for the episcopate, chosen by the Holy See, need to be ordained. If Beijing gives permission for at least some of these ordinations, it would mean that it is still open to dialogue. But at the moment, it all seems rather difficult: Fear of a "jasmine revolution" dominates Beijing, rather than a desire for peace with society and with the Church.