07/22/2010, 00.00
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China-Holy See: the mirage and religious freedom for the official and underground church

by Bernardo Cervellera
After a series of Episcopal ordinations, many speak of a new era in relations between Beijing and the Vatican. But China’s concessions are in reality forced decisions. For a true religious freedom the difference between legal (official) and illegal (underground) Church activities must disappear and the bishops and priests currently in prison set free. And perhaps even the Vatican should be more courageous ...

Rome (AsiaNews) - In recent months, since April until today, the Church in China has celebrated the ordination of six new bishops, as well as the official installation of a previously ordained bishop who had not been recognised by the government.  What has been surprising is that all candidates were approved by the Holy See and recognized by Beijing. But even more surprising is that this wave of new Episcopal ordinations comes in the wake of two lean years, i.e. during which there were no consecrations despite the fact that there were about 40 dioceses of the official Church with octogenarian pastors, who needed replacement, or indeed vacant sees.

The newly ordained (as well as the officially installed bishop) - of which AsiaNews gave immediate news - are the pastors of Bameng (Inner Mongolia), Hohhot (Inner Mongolia), Haimen (Jiangsu) Xiamen (Fujian); Sanyuan (Shaanxi), Taizhou ( Zhejiang), Yulin (Yanan, Shaanxi).

Bishops in communion with the Holy See attended all of the ordinations, with the exception of that of Bameng. Instead in Bameng, the patriotic bishop Ma Yinglin, illegally ordained in 2006, attended the celebration. He is considered the heir to Anthony Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the Patriotic Association, nicknamed the "Pope" of the official Church because of his power over the finance and bishops of the Church.

For at least three years, in internal documents of the police, the PA and the United Front, Ma Yinglin has been sponsored as the future President of the Council of Bishops and of the PA [1].  Both institutions are considered unacceptable by the Holy See because their statutes call for the construction of a Church that is "independent" of Rome and the Pope.

Ma Yinglin’s absence from most ordinations and in particular the mass production of seven bishops, approved by the Holy See and the government, has cheered all Catholics. But some have seen something more: a change in China’s religious policy towards the Vatican, the rediscovery of accord between political power in China and the Holy See, a fast track towards diplomatic relations.

Chinese politics: a breakthrough or a mirage?

Summer brings with it soaring temperatures and this summer is particularly torrid.  Therefore mirages brought on by heat are by no means to be excluded.  Some, in fact, see in the recent ordinations the mirage of “case closed”, of a downhill journey, drawing a sigh of relief that finally China is preparing a new alliance between the throne and the altar.

AsiaNews is not so easily lured by illusions and our contact with Chinese official and underground Catholics leaves us neither optimistic nor pessimistic, simply realistic. And in order to be realistic and to really understand what is happening in China, it is worthwhile to make some points regarding this apparent "change" in China's religious policy towards Catholics.

1) It is true that Ma Yinglin, the illicitly ordained bishop, participated in only one ordination. But he had planned to participate in others. However the resistance demonstrated by Bameng Catholics (the candidate to the episcopate, priests, nuns and faithful), forced a change of program and the chief celebrant of the ceremony was neutralized in a corner, among hundreds of priests. But this is not a change of government or PA policy, it is simply the fruit of the resistance of the Chinese Catholic faithful who adhered to the instructions of the Holy See. Moreover, the series of ordinations - which had been blocked for years - took place because of government fear.  Bejing was afraid of creating unmanageable tensions among believers who claimed the right to have  a bishop for their community as an exercise of their right to freedom of religion (in theory advocated by the Chinese constitution).  Down through these decades it has been the sensus fidei of these faithful, deeply attached to their relationship with the pope, that has persuaded many patriotic bishops take  the bold step of seeking reconciliation with Rome.

2) It is true that the government gave the go ahead for these ordinations after a period of closure and it is true that Beijing is well aware and agree that these ordinations have the approval of the Holy See. The point is that now Beijing can not do otherwise, without the approval of the Holy See, a Chinese bishop can not celebrate, he is no longer respected by the faithful, if he presents himself in a church, the faithful leave. Ma Yinglin is the very proof of this.  In his own diocese of Kunming, he has only a few dozen who follow him, most of whom are paid with money or favours to attend ceremonies.

By demanding that the bishops are no approved of by the Vatican, Beijing risks seeing the faithful flee en masse from the official churches to seek refuge among the underground church, thus losing control of the communities.

What in a mirage seems like an "agreement" between Beijing and the Holy See, in reality is the government’s only choice (forced, but smart) if it wants to even hope to control the Church, showing that it accepts Holy See approval.

The freedom of the official Church

3) To verify that a change in policy has really taken place in Beijing, the question must be asked: after ordination, are the new bishops free to practice their ministry? In theory, old and new bishops of the official Church have great freedom. In practice they must receive permission (a "Red Book") by the Administrative Committee of the Church (a branch of the PA) in order to exercise their ministry. This permit is something contradictory in itself: the bishops are to belong to an institution that is unacceptable to the faith and their ministry, yet to fulfil their religious ministry they need the permission of the same institution.

This permit leads to them being rejected by underground Catholics who see the "little red book" as proof of their adhesion to the Patriotic Association and a betrayal of loyalty to the pope. Thus there is the real risk that the Holy See's approval of the ordination of an official bishop will be watered down in its significance and even become a boomerang against the Church because it serves Party aims to divide (and weaken) it even more.

In his Letter to Chinese Catholics, published in May 2007, Benedict XVI, in branding as "incompatible with Catholic faith” [2 the Patriotic Association’s series of statutes, he does not ask any bishop to explicitly leave it. Instead he asks that it be verified whether or not it affects participation in the Episcopal ministry [3].

It is a fact that sometimes it does have affects. An example: in early July, the United Front and the Ministry of Religious Affairs (namely: the State Administration of Religious Affairs) brought together dozens of new bishops for a four-day meeting in Beijing. The theme, of course, was the integrity of the government's religious policies. On other occasions these meetings have lasted months. The poor bishops forced to accept these "warm invitations" not only can not exercise their ministry in their dioceses, but are subject to continual brainwashing to appreciate increasing government control on the Catholic religion.

In recent years the opportunities for "brainwashing" have multiplied. This is partly due to the need to counter the papal letter, still taboo in China, partly because the Patriotic Association is preparing the National Assembly of Representatives in which Catholics are to vote for the President of the Council of Bishops and the President of the PA.

The National Assembly of Catholic representatives is the highest authority that governs the Catholic Church in China. Its statutes define it as the "sovereign body". It is a "democratic" structure in which the bishops are a minority. The body has power to decide the national ministry, church activities, the appointments of bishops and even questions of theology. Its superiority to the bishops makes it incompatible with the doctrine of the Church Catholic.

For some time now the PA has been trying to organize the Assembly to vote for the new president of the council of Chinese bishops and the president of the PA. The two posts have been vacant for years: the Patriotic Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan, elected PA president in '98, died in 2007, Mgr. Joseph Liu Yuanren, patriotic bishop of Nanjing, elected President of the Council of Bishops in 2004, died in 2005.

In all these years, the assembly has always been "postponed" in 2008 because of the earthquake and the Olympics, in 2009 for the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic, in 2010 for the Shanghai Expo. But the real reason is that the PA wants to be sure Ma Yinglin will be elected (see footnote 1). In practice, however, many official bishops do not want to participate because it really is "incompatible" with Catholic faith.

Just a few months ago the Vatican Commission for the Church in China issued a statement asking bishops attached to the pope to avoid "make gestures (such as, sacramental celebrations, Episcopal ordinations, attending meetings) that contradict communion with the Pope. "

The indication took some bishops by surprise, used to harbouring inner loyalty to the pope and outward loyalty to the PA. They complain that in this way they risk being accused of being "unpatriotic" because they "love the Church (and the Pope)"[4]. The slogan "aiguo; aijiao" (love the Motherland, love the Church) is used as a refrain by the PA to demand obedience to it, generating the suspicion that loving the Church and the pope means hating their country.

In the fears of these bishops and the abused chorus we see how the thought of the PA and the government are still tied to the old Marxist and nationalist nomenclature, which led to the persecution of these decades branding the Vatican and the pope as foreign institutions that conspire for the Fall of China.

Freedom of underground Catholics

A change in attitude is also necessary to ensure religious freedom for underground Catholics, often imprisoned as common criminals (because they are beyond the rules of control) and as "enemies of the country" because they support the Pope.

If the mirage of the policy change were true, two underground bishops have disappeared for years would now be free (Mgr James Su Zhimin of Baoding, Mgr. Mgr Cosma Shi Enxiang Yixian) as well as priests who are still held in solitary confinement or forced labour without ever being sentenced by a court.

But even on this point China's policy has not changed. They accuse the underground Church of "not loving their country” and not joining the PA because they obey to a foreign Pope. In reality, the underground Catholics affirm that love of pope in no way excludes love of country, but they can not waive this bond, according to the PA demands, which for 52 years has been trying to build an "independent" Church.

The facts prove that the underground Church is not a "terrorist" organization that conspires against the Chinese government: 60 years of communism, and despite all the persecution, no Catholic has ever taken part in an act of violence, planted bombs, fired at police, burned or destroyed something.

In addition, several underground bishops and priests sought to be recognized officially by the government, even accepting its control. But the answer was always that they must bend to join the Patriotic Association, repudiating the pope.

Perhaps, after all, what the Party really seeks is not only control over Christians, but continuing division between them. A underground priest went to the police several times asking to be registered, without belonging to the PA. He stressed several times that it would be to the police advantage to know what he was doing and how to control him. The officer laughed in his face: "Better for us that you stay divided- he said – we would be more worried if you were united ".

Real change in Chinese policy toward the Catholic Church is not allowing the ordination of official bishops approved by the Holy See, rather it is guaranteeing religious freedom and freedom of practice by eliminating the division between "normal activities" and "illegal activities". The UN has been calling on China to eliminate this discrimination since 1994 and Beijing still has not changed!

This is the goal that Catholics worldwide should also keep in mind, in line with what Benedict XVI called for in his Letter to Chinese Catholics, namely, promoting unity and reconciliation among official and underground communities. But for them to reconcile, we must help them survive and grow and therefore demand the release of prisoners and the abolition of the division between normal and illegal Church activities!

Some underground communities are still suspicious of their relationship with the "official" church, but it is also true that many 'official' bishops are not overly friendly (much less brothers in the same faith) with their colleagues and the children of the underground community.

This should elicit greater attention from the Vatican which, according to many underground priests "forgets" about their church. Over the years – since timid relations first started between Chinese representatives and members of the Secretariat of State in 2005 - the Holy See has spoken less of the underground communities [5]; if one of them (bishop, priest, layman) is in prison, the Vatican rarely calls for their release. On 7 July Mgr. Jia Zhiguo, underground bishop of Zhengding was released after 15 months of detention by the police. Card. Ivan Dias, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, with great courage, wrote him a message of "welcome back to service." But maybe he thought that it was not yet time to also include the word "prison" or "isolation" to make the world understand that the bishop had not returned from a vacation, but a period of abolition of his rights.


[1] All these documents agree on supporting the campaign for his victory, which should take place during the Eighth Assembly of Catholic representatives. The documents explain that until Ma Yinglin’s election as president is not certain, the Eighth Assembly will not be launched.

[2] See Letter ..., Libreria Editrice Vaticana, May 27, 2007, n. 7 and footnote 36.

[3] In recent history, some official bishops have left the PA. Among them was very famous Mgr. Philip Ma Ji, bishop of Pingliang (Gansu), who also made public a document stating that being a member of the PA is against the Catholic faith.

[4] See Vatican advice leaves China bishops in a bind,in Ucanews.com, 14 aprile 2010

[5] Cardinal. Joseph Zen has even denounced the attempt to eliminate the underground Church by false interpretations of the papal letter to Chinese Catholics: see AsiaNews.it, 24/07/2007 Cardinal Zen warns against confusion surrounding the Pope’s letter to Chinese Catholics

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