Card. Zen: Chinese government is mistaken; all in China want to be led by pope

When a bishop is not chosen by the Holy See, priests usually refuse to concelebrate with him and believers keep their distance.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – "In China, there is only one Catholic Church and everyone wants to be led by the pope": this was the clear response of Cardinal Joseph Zen to statements issued by the Religious Affairs Bureau, which some days ago reiterated China's right to elect and ordain bishops autonomously, without permission from the pope.

On 6 May last, the Religious Affairs Office criticized the Vatican statement condemning as a "serious violation of religious freedom" the Episcopal ordinations that took place without the approval of the Holy See. According to the Religious Affairs Bureau, the statement published by the press office of the Holy See is "without sense". In a strangely sober and somewhat resigned tone, the Religious Affairs Bureau said it "wanted frank and sincere dialogue with the Vatican", but that "electing new bishops" was an "urgent need" for the Church of China, given that there were "40 diocese with vacant sees". The government declaration even ventured into theological affirmations, saying: "Where there is no bishop, there is no church". For this reason, the government consecrates bishops, offering a "contribution to evangelization". The Religious Affairs Bureau also affirmed that by now, in China, bishops have been elected and consecrated autonomously for "more than half a century". ("self election" and "self consecration").

The statement of Cardinal Zen – published yesterday evening in Chinese – reveals that the affirmations of the Religious Affairs Bureau are false, and that in China, after decades of Maoism, ever more bishops, priests and believers fought so that bishops could enjoy the pope's approval. "In China, there is only one Catholic Church and everyone wants to be led by the pope," said Cardinal Zen. According to the militant cardinal of Hong Kong, the decision to ordain two bishops without the endorsement of the Holy See is an obscurantist choice that "pushes backwards" the course of Chinese history and ties between China and the Vatican.

Below we reproduce the text in full of the document of Cardinal Zen, entitled "Let's clarify some issues" (translation from Chinese by AsiaNews)


The Statement of the spokesman of the Religious Affairs Bureau dated 6 May [affirms] that in the Chinese Catholic Church, recognised by the Chinese government, "self-election and self-consecration of bishops has gone on for more than 50 years". This is the fundamental tactic for self-administration of the Chinese Church. They know there is a hierarchy in the Catholic Church; that if there is no bishop, there is no Catholic Church. But in the Catholic Church, bishops are appointed by the Pope. However, they want bishops, but they do not want the Pope's appointment and approval. In this way, can the Church still call itself truly a Catholic Church?

The bishops consecrated "in more than 50 years" with "self-election and self-consecration" were aware of their situation and their hearts were not really at peace. At the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, as contacts with abroad became easier, these bishops, through some people, entrusted their request for "pardon and recognition" to the Holy See. Whenever possible, the Pope accepted many of these requests, and he asked them to make this known to priests and lay believers, without pitting themselves in direct opposition to government institutions. This allowed bishops, priests and lay people to live their faith activities tranquilly, being still under government control.

In the last 20 years, at the end of this "half century", in the official Church, the importance of bishops being appointed by the pope was gradually recognised by all.

Thus, all Episcopal candidates "elected" by the Council of Chinese Bishops [a sort of Chinese bishops' conference that is not recognized], and recognized by the Religious Affairs Bureau, send to the Holy See their request to be approved by the pope – and they know it is necessary. It is only after they get the pope's approval that they receive consecration.

Precisely because of this, at the Episcopal ordination organised by the Patriotic Association at the start of 2000, when there were 12 candidates, only five came forward, and they went to the ordination with their eyes brimming with tears. Even the seminarians of the national seminary of Beijing, directly dependent on Liu Bainian [deputy chairman of the PA, the man responsible for the illicit ordinations that took place recently], did not attend that ordination. Thereafter, the Holy See reminded all that Canon 1382 of Canon law [about excommunication latae sententiae] was still valid.

Those who are forced to be ordained as bishops illicitly [without the permission of the Holy See], do not face an easy situation: priests generally refuse to concelebrate with them; the faithful do not want to participate in their masses.

From this attitude of priests and believers, a very clear significance emerges. And I myself therefore say that "in China, there is only one Catholic Church and all want to be led by the pope".

In recent years, some Episcopal candidates received the approval of the Holy See, but they experienced many difficulties. The government does not allow them to make the approval of the Holy See public, and so in celebrations they are forced to use the formula "approved by the Council of Chinese bishops" that replaces the approval of the pope. Only outside the ordination, can they make it known to priests that the candidate has been confirmed and approved by the Holy See (all Chinese are familiar with this type of dissimulation).

But the paper cannot cover the fire: in this way, it was impossible for the Patriotic Association and the Religious Affairs Bureau to fulfill their interests.

All are aware that for last year's consecrations of bishops of Shanghai and Xian, the two consecrated men were first appointed by the Holy See, and then the bishops and priests held an election to [seemingly] fulfill government norms. The government was forced to accept the two candidates. The government was rather silent about these two consecrations; only Mr Liu Bainian, in an interview with Reuters, said that recently the Chinese government had become "very tolerant".

The reality is that China and the Vatican both affirm they want to collaborate in a harmonious society but in "passive collaboration". Alas, between the Holy See and the Chinese government, there is no accord. This is why we hope that in talks between China and the Vatican, it will be possible to find an agreement acceptable to both.

An agreement is our hope of today. But the Patriotic Association and the Religious Affairs Bureau have forced two priests to accept Episcopal ordination without the approval of the Holy See. We do not understand this fact and it leads us to lose hope. In conclusion: who is it who is pushing things backwards?

Card. Joseph Zen Ze-kiun

8 May 2006