Who is responsible for the chaos in the Catholic Church in China?
Here is a reflection about Fr Dong Guanhua, who was ordained bishop without papal mandate taking office on September 11. This is an isolated case, condemned by many unofficial bishops. The underground Church has remained loyal to the Holy See for decades. Care should be given not to use this case for one’s purposes or to condemn others. The Patriotic Association raises questions of conscience.
Beijing (AsiaNews) – Looking back at the Catholic Church in China for more than 60 years since the Chinese Communist takeover in 1949, we can see that she experienced so many hardships. For instance, foreign missionaries were expelled or arrested whereas Chinese clergy escaped or were arrested; and subsequently seminaries were closed down.
In 1957, the establishment of the so-called Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) created a large number of “self-elected and self-ordained bishops” who set up a “Chinese Catholic Church” that went against the Holy See. Of course, some Catholics were still loyal to the faith and shed their blood to bear witness to this faith.
In 1966, the Cultural Revolution broke out. The damage to the Catholic Church was indescribable, and numerous churches were destroyed. The Catholic Church was banned since it was regarded as a counter-revolutionary organization. A number of bishops, priests, and nuns were forced to leave the religious life. The visible Catholic Church was almost inexistent. However, prisons served as a refuge for the protection of Catholic clergy and believers.
In 1978, the Chinese government adopted a policy of reform and “Open Door” to the outside world. The policy of freedom of religious belief was gradually implemented. Bishops and priests were released from prison one after the other. Pope John Paul II adopted Cardinal Casaroli’s “Eastern policy” for the Catholic Church in China.
The Holy See granted special privileges to the “underground Church community” in China so that it could ordain bishops on its own. The Holy See also adopted a conciliatory policy towards the “open Church community” (officially recognized by the government). As long as the “illegal” underground bishops expressed obedience to the Holy Father, they were legitimate.
This dual policy led to an unprecedented situation for the Catholic Church in China. It gave rise to a period in Chinese Catholic history that saw a large number of “legitimate bishops” with, in some dioceses, two or even three bishops. Under such conditions, it was difficult to ensure the spirituality and the competence of certain bishops. In fact, a number of substandard bishop candidates appeared.
With the progress of society and the convenience of communication tools, the context for special privileges changed. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a pastoral letter to Chinese Catholics revoking such privileges. This kind of development was inevitable.
To achieve full communion between the Catholic Church in China and the Universal Church, Pope Francis is eager to reach an agreement with the Chinese Government in order to make it possible for Chinese bishops to comply with Catholic tradition. At the same time, the Chinese government can participate in the process.
The intention and strategy obviously raise major political concerns. The Holy See has made concessions that have led the Chinese bishops to having almost no rights in choosing candidates. This is because the leaders of the so-called Conference of Chinese Catholic Bishops and Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association have always been manipulated and controlled by the Chinese authorities, and act as official puppets. Therefore, if candidates are selected by the so-called Conference of Chinese Catholic Bishops, then their appointment by the pope has no concrete significance at all. The bishops of underground Church community cannot recommend candidates who are loyal to the Holy See; even when underground bishops participate in the Conference of Chinese Catholic Bishops, they cannot exercise their own rights.
Whether bishops and priests in the underground community are willing to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association or not is an inevitable question that must be faced. The reason is that the underground Church community has always insisted on its loyalty to the Holy See, and rejected the CPCA. But now, as the Holy See appears willing to reach an agreement with the Chinese government, concessions will certainly be made. But whether the underground community can accept the CPCA or not is a matter of conscience.
We believe that most of the bishops of underground community are willing to achieve full communion between the Catholic Church in China and the Universal Church as soon as possible. They are willing to reconcile with the open Church, even to join it. Many dioceses are making efforts at reconciliation, such as Hanzhong, Wenzhou, and Yongnian. They have shown sincerity and their efforts have born fruits.
It is undeniable that in difficult times, the bishops and priests of the underground community, especially well-respected ones like Bishop Fan Xueyan of Baoding, Liu Guandong of Yixian, Li Bingyao of Heze, Guo Wenzhi of Qiqihar, Gao Kexian of Yantai, Fan Zhongliang of Shanghai, and Huang Shoucheng of Mindong, have defended the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in China. This is well known to everyone.
The recent case of Dong Guanhua, who was ordained bishop without papal mandate, is but one; it is not a widespread practice in a Chinese Church as it moves towards normalization.
First, when Dong Guanhua openly installed himself a bishop on September 11, 2016, Bishop Jia Zhiguo of Zhengding, who is loyal to the Holy See, issued a statement on September 13, saying: “Since Dong Guanhua was ordained bishop privately and inaugurated as bishop on Sept. 11, 2016, Dong and his ordainer have violated Canon 1382 of the Canon Law, and are subject to latae sententiae (automatic excommunication).” This shows that the bishops of the underground Church community, who are loyal to the pope, cannot act like Dong who cursed Pope Francis and rejected the pastoral letter of Pope Benedict XVI.
In Europe for example, when the Church in Czechoslovakia was under persecution, some bishops even ordained women priests, but these were individual cases and could not be taken as disloyalty of the underground Czech Church in times of difficulties. Similarly, the Church in China has experienced persecution and suffering for a long time; it is inevitable that cases like Dong Guanhua’s would appear.
However, if someone has secretly manipulated or conspired to destroy the image of the underground Church community, they should be condemned. If someone wants to use Dong Guanhua’s case and his private ordination as “an act by bishops of the underground community against the Holy See, that would be unjust and false”. In particular, bishops like Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou, Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar, Guo Xijin of Mindong, Jin Lugang of Nanyang, and Peng Weizhao of Yujiang disagree absolutely with Dong’s arrogant behavior and do not support him.
Even if Pope Francis changes his strategy vis-à-vis the Chinese government, and even if the changes are not beneficial to the underground community, the bishops of the underground Community will not undertake such outrageous and absurd actions.
At the same time, we should also consider the reason why a case like Dong Guanhua’s private ordination happened. Many reasons contributed to it. One should not consider the matter superficially. These reasons are not only found in the political situation but also in the Holy See strategy as well as Dong’s radical character.
The case of Dong’s private ordination has alarmed everyone. In the process of communion between the Catholic Church in China and the universal Church, as well as the reconciliation between the underground community and the open community, we must be rational in facing and pondering the situation so as not to reduce the causes to one’s interests and attack each other.
One cannot generalize starting from Dong Guanhua’s individual case of episcopal ordination without papal mandate.
Peter, Sept. 12, 2016
 In addition to being a tool of the Communist Party, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association sets out in its charter the goal of building an "independent Church." Due to its superior position vis-à-vis the bishops, it is "incompatible with Catholic doctrine" as Benedict XVI noted in his Letter to Chinese Catholics (n. 7, note 36).[Editor's note]