Meeting at Vatican on the Church in China
by Bernardo Cervellera
A meeting of various Vatican dicasteries will begin tomorrow on the situation of the Church in China. Topics will include Beijing’s ambiguities, bishops ordained illicitly, the unity of the official and underground Church, and, above all, how to eliminate the influence of the Patriotic Association.

Rome (AsiaNews) – A "private" and "sub secreto" meeting has been called by the Vatican and will commence tomorrow. This evening, participants will gather for a dinner at the Santa Marta College inside the Vatican City.  The meeting’s topic will be the situation of the Church in China and relations between the Holy See and the Chinese government. Taking part in the meeting are top figures from the Secretariat of State and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, as well as various figures involved in mission towards China: Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop of Hong Kong; Cardinal Paul Shan, Bishop emeritus of Kaohsiung (Taiwan); Monsignor José Lai Hung-seng, Bishop of Macao. Also taking part from the Hong Kong diocese are Auxiliary Bishop John Tong and Dr Anthony Lam, an expert of the Holy Spirit Study Centre, the diocese's institute of theology and for documentation on China.

The ambiguity of the Chinese government

AsiaNews sources say that the problem is not so much the long-time impasse on diplomatic relations, but the situation created with the 3 illicit episcopal ordinations which took place during 2006.

These took place in a moment of détente, which had been preceded by a series of positive signals from a Chinese government willing to rebuild diplomatic relations. Not to be forgotten is also the fact that, until then, episcopal ordinations were being carried out on the basis of an unwritten agreement between the government and the Holy See, as had been the case of ordinations in Suzhou, Shanghai, Xian, Wanxian and Shenyang.

The illicit ordinations in Kunming (April 30), Anhui (May 3) and Xuzhou (November 30) instead took place with the heavy-handed involvement of the Patriotic Association (PA) and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. At the latest ordination -- attended by, according to some sources, Liu Bainian, Vice President of the Patriotic Association, and Ye Xiaowen, Director of the Religious Affairs Bureau, who travelled there from Beijing -- the Patriotic Association abducted two bishops to have them preside over the rite, threatened to reduce the candidate and concelebrating bishops to poverty and to take measures against their families if they did not submit to the ceremony; it ensured the participation of the faithful by promising money.

Pressure, threats, blackmail and lies -- in some cases, the PA publicly proclaimed to be in agreement with the Holy See -- were involved also in the other ordinations, to the point that the Holy See spoke out against these operations as a "serious violation of religious freedom."

After all these ordinations, the Chinese Ambassador in Rome went as far as to "apologize" with the Vatican, but the Holy See's problem now is to figure out whether it can trust a government that, on one hand, promises détente, and on the other allows – if not approves – serious violations against human and religious rights.

The burden of excommunication

Within the Church, the problem is how to treat the bishops ordained illicitly and those who took part in the ceremony. The Vatican's declarations against the ordinations (May 4, 2006, and December 2, 2006) cite latae sententiae excommunication, but leave open the possibility that they took place under duress and against the interested parties’ full free will, thus sparing to some extent the (good) faith of the new pastors.

The Vatican's statements also say that these ordinations create "division in the diocesan community" and cause distress to "the conscience of many ecclesiastics and members of the faithful." So far, the Holy See has excused everyone, but among the members of the faithful, priests, and bishops in China, there are many who are wondering whether the time has not come to respond to the PA's pressure with greater resolve. And, without abandoning the implicated bishops, to suggest and demand that they refrain from exercising their ministry for several years.

The problem is even more acute in the underground Church: its bishops, in order to remain faithful to the Holy See, have suffered imprisonment, torture, abduction, minute controls and isolation for decades. Various members of the underground Church, writing to AsiaNews, said "Is it not time that the priests of the official Church too call up the courage to suffer for faithfulness to the Holy See, as is the tradition of many martyrs of the Church in China?"

There is the possibility that the Holy See will give more precise indications on such matters, so as to increase unity between the two branches of the Church -- official and underground -- which have, over the past ten years, become ever more reconciled. Certain Catholics and bishops of China have even asked that the Pope issue a letter on the unity of the Church in China.

Eliminating the Patriotic Association

In any case, the Chinese government and the Holy See find themselves at a crossroads in terms of evaluating the Patriotic Association’s function. Born as an organism to monitor religious activity, it has by now become the "owner" of the Church's life, managing the ordination of bishops and priests, seminary teaching, the transfer of personnel, Church finances and property, with the result of distorting the spiritual experience itself of communities. Not to be forgotten is also the fact the Patriotic Associations statute foresees the creation of a national and independent Church, separate from Rome.

The Vatican’s declaration of December 2, 2006, states that the ordination (of Xuzhou) is “the fruit and consequence of a vision of the Church that does not correspond with Catholic doctrine and subverts the fundamental principles of its hierarchical structure.”  But this can be applied to all the activities of the Patriotic Association.  According to some Chinese Catholics, the time has come to reject entirely, on the part of everyone – official and underground Catholics – adherence to the Patriotic Association, notwithstanding the willingness to register communities with the government.  Already today, some underground bishops are attempting this approach: they register with the government, but refuse to adhere to the Patriotic Association.  But this does not always go smoothly.

On the part of the government – and especially the Foreign Ministry – it is understandable how the Patriotic Association has by now become obsolete and a burden.  Not a day goes by that one foreign government or another accuses China of violating the religious rights of communities, and this is becoming bad publicity for a country that wants to show itself to be modern and open, and wants the 2008 Olympic Games to be a success.  The Patriotic Association is becoming a source of tension in many regions of China, so much so as to betray the idea of a “harmonious society” so dear to President Hu Jintao.  It is also true that the Patriotic Association is one of the most traditional structures of Maoism, the birth of which is part and parcel of the history of the Communist Party.  For many members of the Party, attacking and sidelining the Patriotic Association equates to self-criticism.  Some in the Church think that the Vatican should not enter into diplomatic relations with Beijing until the Church does not enjoy full religious freedom, free from the oppression of the Patriotic Association.  Others suggest opening dialogue with China and gradually neutralizing the Patriotic Association’s harmful influence.

It is likely that the meetings at the Vatican over the next few days will only give an initial handling to the problems listed here.  What is certain – as was confirmed by figures close to the meeting – is the creation of a permanent Commission to deal with the China dossier.