HONG KONG — Relations between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China have deteriorated rapidly and seriously in recent weeks. The state-run agency for Catholics dragooned several papally named bishops to participate in the ordinations of two priests who were appointed bishops without Rome’s approval.

After the Holy See responded by pronouncing the two ordinands excommunicated, the State Administration of Religious Affairs replied on July 25, calling Rome’s action “extremely unreasonable and rude.”

Explanations for China’s new heavy hand range from Beijing’s growing confidence in world affairs to its apprehension about the ripple effects of the so-called Arab Spring, the series of popular uprisings that shook Middle Eastern Muslim countries earlier this year.

The chain of unilateral acts by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the State Administration of Religious Affairs began in November with the ordination of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association’s vice chairman, Joseph Guo Jincai, as bishop of Chengde. Then, at the end of June, Paul Lei Shiyin was ordained bishop of Leshan.

The most recent event, on July 14, saw the consecration of Joseph Huang Bingzhang as bishop of Shantou. Further, at least four bishops were arrested and forced to participate in the ceremony. Though only one is needed, at least three bishops normally participate, when available, to demonstrate the support of the whole Church. In this case, the presence of several bishops offered an ironic message about the divided state of the Chinese Catholic Church, both internally and between the Chinese Church and Rome.

Some observers see Beijing’s clamp down on human-rights issues, including religious freedom, as stemming from a long-term insecurity over internal dissent and a growing confidence in international affairs.

Carsten Vala, a professor of political science at Loyola University in Baltimore, says the Catholic Church is more likely to provoke the government’s ire than some other Christian denominations because it is led from outside China and because the Pope is also the head of a state, a reality that fuels the anti-imperialist sentiments in the communist regime.

“In the 1860s, foreign governments forced treaties on the Chinese, permitting foreign missionaries to operate. Protestantism, in particular, grew enormously. But because of the treaties, Christianity has been associated with imperialism in communist ideology,” Vala said.

Officially atheist, communist China followed the Soviet Union’s example in placing all faiths under state supervision and by insisting they be self-governed — independent of foreign rule, not of government control. To attract U.S. investment, China has become more permissive of religious activity since the 1970s.

By 2009, President Hu Jintao was able to publicly declare that religion could benefit the common good — a move Vala identified as the first positive public pronouncement on religion by a communist Chinese official. Indeed, the government has, at times, approached religion as a foreign-policy tool, Vala suggested, staging several international Buddhism conferences and using them to strengthen ties with Taiwan.

Throughout the communist period, underground Catholic and Protestant churches have operated in parallel with state-controlled churches. Chinese are joining Christian churches, as well as fraternal organizations and temple societies. In part, they seek social or medical services no longer provided by the state, but they are also hungry for a deeper meaning to life that communism no longer provides, says Vala.

The number of Christians in China is put as high as 100 million, with as many as 15 million Catholics. China has more than 1.3 billion people.

On July 22, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association’s vice chairman, Guo, said there were seven more ordinations of bishops in the works. Last November, a spokesman for the state-run church organization defended illicit ordinations on the grounds that there were 40 dioceses without bishops. 

Broken Accommodation

The Holy See seemed to have reached an accommodation with the Chinese government in 2006, whereby new bishops would be ordained only if mutually agreeable.

If so, this broke down at the end of last year, with the first of three illicit consecrations of bishops and subsequent excommunications by the Holy See. To enable Huang’s consecration in July, four valid bishops were arrested by state officials and forced to participate; a fifth bishop was barricaded in his residence, surrounded by supporters, to prevent his seizure.

“The missing bishops reappeared at the consecration,” reported Anthony Lam, senior researcher a the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong and author of the book The Catholic Church in Present-Day China: Through Darkness and Light. “But we could not see [on the video shown on TV] if they did the laying on of hands.”

Lam said the four bishops all resisted participating but were forced to do so by the government. Lam charged that the government, through State Administration of Religious Affairs, wants to pick the bishops because of the promise it made in 1981 to return church property confiscated at the time of the communist takeover. This land, Lam’s research indicates, is worth $20 billion in U.S. dollars. “They want to control the land to control the money,” he said.

The government’s desire to select bishops has divided the Chinese Church, said Lam, because “some priests are too eager to gain bishoprics. Joseph Huang Bingzhang is one of these.”

The installation of illicit bishops has divided the clergy, with some siding with the government, some with the Holy See, and others taking a neutral position.

Mark Chan, spokesman for China Aid, a Texas-based organization that supports the Protestant church in China, sees the government’s hard line on Catholics as “part of a general strategy against Catholics and Protestants.”

The number of arrests for “illegal religious gatherings” and “superstitious practices” has shot up,” Chan reported. The government wants to “show resolution in the face of rapid growth of Christianity.” He identified two specific triggers he believes could be behind the hard line: First, last year’s Congress on World Evangelization invited 200 leaders from underground Protestant churches in China to attend. The Chinese government blocked their attendance at the last minute, but was alarmed, in Chan’s view, by the degree of organization displayed by the churches.

Second, Chinese human-rights lawyers have become more aggressive and prominent in defending the rights of Christians and other religious believers.

Bolder China, Weaker America

China’s growing economic clout internationally means “it is no longer afraid of the international community.” And adding to its boldness, Chan said, is the inability of President Barack Obama’s administration to “stand up” to China. “The Chinese are very tricky and use a lot of tactics. The U.S. needs to be tough and smart.”

Another factor in the toughening line with the Catholic Church, according to Loyola’s Vala, is the Arab Spring, which clearly has Beijing nervous and has led to human-rights restrictions beyond the area of religion.

Virginia Farris, foreign-policy advisor at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for international justice and peace, agreed that the Chinese may be cracking down on religious believers and political dissidents as part of a general reaction to the Arab Spring.

“The U.S. Church stands in solidarity with the Chinese Church and deplores these attacks and this coercion,” she said. “The Chinese Church is not a threat to the government. It can make a contribution to the common good.”

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.