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Vatican Concessions to Communism
Fail in China

Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.

My friend Jan asked me to comment on the recent ruptured relations between the Vatican and China. She read that bishops had been consecrated without papal approval by the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA - the state Church governed by Communist authorities) and that a new persecution of underground priests is underway. (1)

I am pleased to comply with her request, as I believe it is an often silenced topic that has a valuable lesson about the impossibility of the Church coexisting with a Communist regime.

A supposed thaw in Vatican-Beijing relations

Since Paul VI, a policy of dialogue and compromise with Communist China has been underway. The Vatican accepts the CPA at the expense of the suffering Underground Church. John Paul II and Benedict XVI continued that strategy under the pretext that this conciliatory tone would lead to a definitive reconciliation with the Chinese leaders of the CPA.

CPA president Lui Bainian greeting Chinese officials

CPA president Liu Bainian greets the regime representatives
With his Letter to China of 2007 Benedict made a further attempt to boost Vatican ties with Beijing. In it, he called for the reconciliation of Underground Catholics with the CPA. In effect, he formally approved the usurper CPA by declaring there is only one Catholic Church in China. He further revoked the special faculties the Holy See gave the Underground Church, including ordaining bishops. That letter has stimulated underground Bishops and the faithful to accept and merge with the Communist CPA.

On the diplomatic level, the Vatican was proclaiming a victory since, after the Letter, the illicit ordinations in the CPA stopped. All the candidates chosen by the CPA had been approved by the Vatican. To achieve this “thaw,” the Vatican willingly sacrificed Catholic doctrine, which is incompatible with Communism.

In the grass roots of the Underground Church, the Letter generated discouragement and confusion. They felt abandoned by the Vatican. Their heroic resistance to Communism ironically is being buried by the Pope, for whom they endured half a century of persecution. (2)

Three bishops without papal approval

At the end of last year Beijing abruptly broke this conciliatory atmosphere. In November 2010 CPA president Liu Bainian announced an unapproved candidate, Fr. Joseph Guo Jincai, would be consecrated bishop in the Chengde diocese, Hebei province. The consecration took place on November 20.

A Bishop being ordained in the CPA

The unauthorized bishop made in the Chengde diocese in November 2010
CPA bishop Paul Lei Shiyin

In June 2011 bishop Lei Shiyin is consecrated without papal permission
CPA bishop Joseph Huang Bingzhang

On July 14 Huang Bingzhang becomes the 3rd irregular bishop; the CPA announces seven more
Four days later a Vatican communiqué stated the Holy Father “deeply regretted” that irregular ordination and issued a weak warning about the gravity of not asking the Pope’s permission to name bishops. (3)

In response, the Communist regime slapped the Vatican in the face again. In December, another unrecognized bishop was elected president of the Bishops’ Conference in China, and the recently made bishop of Chengde was named its secretary general.

The Vatican issued another letter expressing “profound sorrow” over those decisions.

Then, in April of 2011 China initiated a new persecution of underground priests. In the Hebei province priests were taken by police squads to undisclosed places. There were reports of torture and coercive re-education classes to induce them to join the CPA.

The Holy See press released another communiqué - “Moved by love, a message to Chinese Catholics” - criticizing the November consecration and cohercive policies. Its general tone, however, was conciliatory. It stated: “We hope that sincere and respectful dialogue with the civil authorities may help to overcome the difficulties” (4)

Instead of dialogue, the CPA announced it would ordain 40 bishops “without delay.”

In the Leshan diocese in Sichuan province, a second priest, Paul Lei Shiyin, was consecrated bishop on June 29, 2011 without papal approval.

On July 14, a third priest, Joseph Huang Bingzhang, was consecrated bishop of Shantou without the papal mandate. In both cases, bishops loyal to the Holy See were forced by police to participate in the ceremony. (5)

A change in atmosphere

Only then, in face of these blatant affronts, did the Vatican harden its stance and pronounce two excommunications on the last two bishops, denying their episcopal status and authority to govern their diocesan communities. The declaration also praised the resistance of bishops who had been obliged to take part in the ordination. (6)

The Beijing government responded to the excommunication belligerently, stating it was “extremely unreasonable and rude” for the Vatican to threaten the two new bishops with “so-called excommunication.” To improve relations, it continued, the Vatican “must revoke the excommunications and return to the right track of dialogue in a practical manner.” (7)

The statement added that the clergy and faithful will remain firm “on the path of an independent, autonomous and self-governing Church.” It praised the “ardent Catholic faith” of the people and insisted that consecrations without papal mandate are necessary for “the normal running of the Church and for the needs of pastoral and evangelizing activity.” (8)

Relations between China and the Vatican look set to worsen after China’s CPA said it plans to name, consecrate and install seven more non-approved bishops in the near future. (9)

Increase of confusion

Despite the arctic chill that fell on official Vatican-Beijing relations, life in the CPA continues as if nothing had happened. Also, Catholic authorities and organizations outside China continue to contact and support the CPA as the official Catholic church.

Maryknoll priests, China

Maryknoll priests celebrate their 100th anniversary with CPA priests in the Jilin diocese
For example, this June the Maryknoll Missionaries celebrated their 100th year anniversary of work in the China mainland with a series of events in CPA churches, with no mention of the unapproved bishops or the new persecution of the Underground Church. (10) The people in the CPA pews, accustomed to obeying the government, ignore the controversy.

Sadly, this climate of normality instills more confusion in the Underground Church. Are the excommunications to be extended to the CPA, which made the consecrations? Do they mean that the Vatican considers the CPA schismatic, as before? Is the Underground Church to be considered the only Catholic Church in China?

The absence of answers to these questions can only increase the confusion.

The result is that defections continue. Recently 90-year-old underground bishop Joseph Zhu Baoyu, who had been imprisoned and “re-educated” several times, gave up the fight and merged with the Communist regime. On June 30, 2011, he was installed as a government-recognized bishop. (11) Many underground faithful believe the ambiguous policy of the Holy See motivated his decision.

Will we see a Vatican effort to support the Underground Church and condemn the CPA? I wish it were so, but I seriously doubt this will become a reality. I believe the future will show us more attempts to mend fences. The Vatican is treating this as a political question, acting as if there is no real religious gap between the authentic Catholic Underground Church and the Communist-controlled CPA. Nothing could be further from the truth.

At any rate, it should be noted and recorded that Benedict’s conciliatory approach to Communism in China resulted in a blatant failure.
1. The Underground Catholic Church comprises the clergy and people who are faithful to Rome and resist the Communist authorities.
2. “Rome, how must we express our faith?” UCANews online, April 14, 2011
3. “China and the Vatican,” UCANews online, June 25, 2011
4. Read the text of Moved by love, a message to Chinese Catholics at http://www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=18069
5. "China rejects papal authority over Catholic hierarchy," ABCOnline, August 15, 2011
6. "Declaration Concerning Illegitimate Ordination in China," Vatican Information Service, July 18, 2011, http://visnews-en.blogspot.com/2011/07/declaration-concerning-illegitimate.html
7. Beijing responds to excommunications, UCAnews.com, July 25, 2011
8. Ibid.
9. “China to ordain 7 more bishops: Vatican relations set to worsen,” CathNews New Zealand online, July 26, 2011
10. “100 years of the Maryknoll missionaries: their first foundation was in China,” Agenzia Fides online, June 30, 2011
11. “Government recognizes ‘underground’ bishop,” CathNewsUSA online, June 30, 2011

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Posted on August 19, 2011

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