WASHINGTON—The January ordination of five government-selected bishops in China and subsequent reports of crack-downs against loyal Catholics are major setbacks in Vatican-Beijing relations, several U.S. observers say.

The moves surprised many, since news reports in November and December claimed that the Vatican and China were moving toward establishing diplomatic relations. Several wire services had reported the Vatican was ready to end formal diplomatic ties with the Republic of China on Taiwan, and the two sides were negotiating on the selection of bishops, which the Vatican insists must be made by the Pope in accord with canon law.

But instead, a government-controlled church entity ordained five bishops in Beijing on Jan. 6, the same day Pope John Paul II ordained 12 bishops in Rome.

“It was a shock to everyone, and seen as a deliberate affront to the Holy Father,” said Maryknoll Sister Janet Carroll, executive director of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau. The South Orange, N.J.-based nonprofit group is sponsored by religious groups including the Jesuits, Maryknolls, Francis-cans, Columbans and Benedictines.

A U.S. State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, condemned “China's severe violations of the religious rights of Catholics and others.” The source noted that the State Department has designated China a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom.

The press office of the People's Republic of China Embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment.

On Jan. 24, Catholic News Service reported that Chinese authorities had recently arrested a pro-Rome underground bishop and several priests, forced some lay Catholics to join the government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and demolished two churches.

Joseph Kung, president of the Cardinal Kung Foundation in Stamford, Conn., said he believes the government is making a push to stamp out the underground church. “They want to destroy the Roman Catholic Church before the recognition started,” Kung told the Register. “Therefore, when there is recognition, there is no more Roman Catholic Church.”

Sister Carroll said it is difficult to tell who is responsible for the uncanonical ordinations and the reported crack-down. She suggested that the ordinations may have been orchestrated by Patriotic Association officials “who are trying to throw a monkey wrench in the movement toward normalization” between the Vatican and China.

There are two Catholic groups in the People's Republic of China: the “open church,” affiliated with the government-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association; and the “underground church,” which professes loyalty to the Pope.

The Patriotic Association, founded by the Communist government in 1957, has been ordaining bishops since 1958. The Vatican considers ordinations by the Patriotic Association valid but illicit, meaning the new bishops have the powers of a bishop but are not in communion with the Pope. Vatican officials, however, have avoided calling the division in China a schism.

Dual Membership

But complicating the situation, many members of the Patriotic Association are also believed to be secret members of the underground church. Church sources have indicated in recent years that 20 to 30 or more Patriotic Association bishops are secretly in full communion with the Pope — reports the Vatican has refused to confirm.

On Dec. 15, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said there had been no breakthroughs in talks with the Chinese government, downplaying unattributed claims of progress reported by Catholic News Service.

But on Jan. 4, after plans were announced in China for the uncanonical ordinations in China, Navarro-Valls spoke of the Holy See's “astonishment and disappointment,” and added: “This decision comes at a time when voices have been raised in many parts which lead one to hope well for a normalization of relations between the Holy See and Beijing.”

The New Bishops

The newly ordained bishops are Peter Fang Jianping of Tangshan, 39; Jin Daoyuan of Changzhi, 71; Lu Xinping of Nanjing, 36; Su Changshan of Baoding, 74; and Zhan Silu of Mindong, 39.

Bishop Liu Yuanren of Nanjing, president of the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China, was the ordaining bishop, with Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan of Beijing, chairman of the Patriotic Association, as coordainer, according to an Asian wire service quoted by Catholic News Service.

Officials of the “open church” in China were quoted as saying that the ordinations were carried out to fill vacancies, not to spurn the authority of the Pope.

Only about 300 people attended the illicit ordinations, and students at the national seminary in Beijing boycotted the event after going through a rehearsal the day before, according to wire accounts.

Government officials later hauled in the seminarians for three days of political lecturing, trying to find out who instigated the boycott, said Sister Carroll, citing one of her Catholic sources in China. When the students went home for winter vacation, Sister Carroll was told by her source, government authorities questioned and lectured faculty members for another two days.

“We believe the policy of ordinations, independent from Rome, is wrong,” Sister Carroll quoted the source as saying.

‘A Mistake and a Failure’

That shows that the ordination gambit didn’t work, Sister Carroll said. “On balance, it appears to have been a mistake and a failure,” she contended. “It didn’t engage the people in popular support. It received a very negative reaction in China, and an extremely negative reaction internationally.”

In recent years, about 50 Chinese seminarians — considered by Kung to be members of the Patriotic Association — have studied in the United States. Most have already returned to China after completing their degrees here. Just recently, three more priests came from China to study here to prepare to teach theology in a seminary in China.

The remaining Chinese seminarians and clergy, numbering about 10 to 15, gather twice a year for a retreat sponsored by the Maryknolls in Ossining, N.Y.

One of those clerics is Father Peter Shen, 30, from the Diocese of Wei Hui, a six-hour drive south of Beijing. Father Shen sees himself as a potential peace-maker between the two Catholic factions in China.

In this country, he said, “When people ask us which part of the Catholic Church we belong to, my answer is, I am a Roman Catholic priest. I want to do the reconciliation work wherever it is needed.”

He spent six years studying at Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago before going last fall to the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., where he expects to earn a doctorate in sacred theology in 2002.

He plans to return to China, to teach systematic theology at the national theological seminary in Beijing.

He recently spoke with his family in China at the beginning of the Chinese New Year. “Whenever I talk with my family regarding the Catholic Church in China, my position for them is there is one Church in China,” Father Shen said. “There are different opinions, but we need to be reconciled with each other. …

“I believe the Church in China is one Church. I believe theologically, there is one Church.”

Matt McDonald is based in Mashpee, Massachusetts.