“Is the honeymoon over?” asks the magazine Inside the Vatican (December), following a consecration of a Chinese bishop deemed to be illicit by the Holy See on Nov. 20.
Subsequent nominations at the helm of “official” Chinese Catholic bodies in China have seemed to confirm the assessment that relations between the Roman Catholic Church and Beijing are again going through rougher waters. Chinese Catholics continue to be divided between the “official” church, recognized by the state, and the “clandestine” church, which refuses to submit to statecontrolled bodies, considered as illegitimate from the church’s perspective (the word “clandestine” should not be understood too literally, since many of the “clandestine” communities and their clergy are actually well-identified, although toleration may greatly vary from one place to another; arrests of “clandestine” priests and bishops are frequent).
In recent times, however, a kind of gentleman’s agreement had been established: since 2006, only “official” clergy approved by Rome would be ordained to the episcopate, thus granting them a kind of dual status: being both part of the “official” Chinese Catholic Church and in communion with Rome. In 2010 only ten new bishops had been created in such a way, reports the news agency Eglises d’Asie (December 1). In some places, it is reported that “official” and “clandestine” parishes share the same place of worship. On Nov. 20, however, a priest in a high position in the “official” Catholic Church apparatus was elevated to the episcopate without the Pope’s approval.
Bishops taking part into the ceremony had apparently been put under strong pressure to do so. The move gave a clear sign that Chinese authorities are unwilling to relinquish their control over Catholic Church life in China. While the reaction of the Holy See was unambiguous, even more strongly worded statements came after the 8th Assembly of the Representatives of the Church in China, which took place from Dec. 7 to 9 in Beijing. An “illegitimate” bishop (i.e. one who had been ordained without Rome’s approval) was elected as the new chairman of the Chinese Bishops’ Conference. At the same time, a “legitimate” bishop (but generally considered as compliant) was elected as the chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the ruling body of Chinese Catholics, which refuses Rome’s interference. Two “illegitimate” bishops will assist him.
The votes were quasi-unanimous, and anyway there was only one candidate for each position. The new situation will make it difficult for Rome-recognized “official” bishops to avoid concelebrating with “illegitimate” ones (Eglises d’Asie, Dec. 16). The Holy See denounced the assembly and violations of religious freedom in China, describing state interference in religious life as a sign of “weakness” rather than strength.
Dated Dec. 17, the Holy See’s communiqué stated that many bishops and priests had been forced to attend the assembly, and called the others to repent of their participation. The Holy See also stated that both the recent illicit ordination and the assembly had damaged the dialogue and atmosphere of trust between Rome and the Chinese government. Members of the “clandestine” church in China rejoiced over the reaction of the Vatican: they had felt that Rome had become too soft in recent years for the sake of diplomatic dialogue with China. By taking moves that would make dialogue more difficult, the Chinese leadership has apparently wanted to show clearly who is in control.
(Inside the Vatican, P.O. Box 57, New Hope, KY 40052-0057)