Despite Ordinations, China-Watchers Predict Renewed Vatican-Beijing Dialogue

VATICAN CITY — What is China up to? First came the news in early May that not one, but two, Chinese priests had been ordained bishops without the Vatican’s approval. Then, in mid-May, another bishop installed himself as an ordinary against Rome’s wishes.

All three belong to the “official,” state-run church, otherwise known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. The Vatican doesn’t recognize the organization, and condemned the “consecrations” of Joseph Ma Yinglin and Joseph Liu Xinhong of the Kunming and Anhui provinces as “grave violations of religious freedom” that caused “great distress” to the Pope.

Both men are at risk of excommunication, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls noted at the time, depending on the precise nature of their circumstances. (If their actions were coerced, the penalties that their actions would otherwise warrant would not apply.)

The Vatican has yet to comment on the latest installation, that of Zhan Silu on May 14. Although he defied the Church, his offense this time is less serious as he had already illicitly been made auxiliary bishop in 2000 — and was excommunicated. His “self-installation” as bishop was ostensibly so he could take up responsibilities in his new diocese of Mindong, in eastern Fujian province.

All three “consecrations” are a blow to improving relations with China. After 50 years of little or no contact between the Holy See and Beijing, in recent months there were real hopes of a breakthrough for the country’s 12 million Catholics, 8 million of whom currently worship underground at the risk of persecution.

Some Chinese Church leaders were speculating that relations could be normalized as early as 2010, and Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong believed China was on the brink of setting up diplomatic ties with the Holy See. After these events, however, the Hong Kong cardinal called for a suspension of dialogue.

“It will be hard to carry on where they left off, as if nothing had happened,” said one diplomatic source close to the Vatican. “There will need to be a period of healing before any possible further progress.”

Taiwan’s ambassador to the Holy See, Tou Chou-seng, was also skeptical that the Vatican would cut ties with Taiwan soon (a condition imposed by Beijing for normalized relations). He told The China Post May 16 that normalization would be impossible until the question of who had the power to appoint bishops was resolved.

“If the Vatican and China established diplomatic ties, the Vatican has assured us it will notify us before the event and we will not be caught unprepared,” Ambassador Tou said.


It remains unclear why the Patriotic Association decided to go ahead with these ordinations. Three possibilities have been put forward: first, that it was to send a message of disapproval to the Vatican after Pope Benedict XVI’s elevation of Cardinal Zen at the last consistory in March; second, that the Chinese are short of bishops; and third, that it is a reaction from Communist hardliners against the recent improvement of relations.

Whatever the reason, analysts stress that the ordinations were less damaging than some reports suggested. Sino-Vatican watchers note that China’s leaders increasingly see religion as a remedy to the nation’s growing social instability (last year alone, the state recorded 70,000 riots and mass protests).

Evidence of this attitude occurred two years ago, when Rome was allowed to bypass the leaders of the Patriotic Association and put forward its candidates for ordination as bishops. The Chinese government has also allowed greater mingling and cooperation between Catholics belonging to the Patriotic Association and the underground Church.

“They see the Church as possibly appeasing the tension and violence,” said Father Bernardo Cervellera, director of Rome-based AsiaNews. Beijing, he said, is beginning to view the Church as a “reconciler,” helping the poor, the marginalized, the spiritually lost, and the sick.

In addition, China sees good relations with the Vatican as a means to remove its “pariah state” label, derived from its appalling human rights record, Father Cervellera said.

Another hopeful development is that, as relations with Beijing improve, the Patriotic Association is becoming an obstacle between Beijing and Rome, placing its existence in doubt. According to Father Cervellera, this threat to its future has prompted the government-approved Church to embark on a desperate, rearguard action — unilaterally installing bishops in order to survive and to destroy the Vatican-Beijing rapprochement. .

But the move may backfire: None of the new bishops will enjoy the full backing of their parishioners, who tend to reject bishops not accepted by Rome. This, according to China watchers, explains why the ordinations were surrounded by misinformation and publicized locally as having the permission of the Vatican. It also explains why only a very small number of laity and clergy attended the ceremonies.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has spoken little about the dispute; its leaders are more concerned with solving other state concerns and have delegated responsibilities to the Patriotic Association’s vice-president, layman Anthony Liu Bainian. But according to some sources, Beijing reportedly dislikes Liu, who is accused of masterminding the ordinations, and is merely biding time until he retires in two or three years time, after which substantive progress in relations with Rome can be made.

Observers also note that despite the Vatican’s strong words and China’s demand that the Holy See cease “interfering” in internal matters, both sides remain open to continued dialogue. Much work is reported to be continuing behind the scenes, through mediators such as the Community of Sant’Egidio.

“It’s a temporary storm because, above all, China needs this relationship,” said Father Cervellera. “It’s a kind of theater.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.