Helpful Texts

Link to the mandala of Brother Nicholas of the Flueli
George Evers {*}

Conflict Intensification
Instead of Communication?

Bishop Ordinations as Stumbling Block
in the Vatican Chinese Relations?


From: Herder-Korrespondenz, 2006/6, P. 290-294
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    For a while it looked as if it would come to an agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China in the near future. Then a few weeks ago once again water was poured into the wine by the ordination of bishops for Chinese dioceses without the agreement of Rome. The "Patriotic Union" obviously wants to prevent a normalization of the relations between Rome and Peking with the help of the party and the government.


On 30 April 2006 Joseph Ma Yinglin (41) was ordained bishop of Kunming without the Pope's agreement and regardless of appeals from Rome and Hong Kong. Shortly after this ordination in Kunming on 3 May a further bishop's ordination took place, again without agreement of Rome, when Joseph Liu Xinhong (41) was ordained in Wuhu new Bishop of Anhui. After their election by organs of the Chinese local church in both cases the dossiers of the candidates had been submitted in Rome for confirmation, where they were without final decision still under treatment.

Rome especially had reservations against the bishop candidate Ma Yinglin, for as Secretary of the Chinese Bishops' Conference he had been a close co-worker of Liu Bainian, the deputy chairman of the Patriotic Union, and is seen as his protégé. After the consecrations had already once been postponed, the Patriotic Union got its way with its hard policy to realize the ordinations in any case, even without permission of Rome. It was above all Liu Bainian, who put through these ordinations also against the resistance within the official church, in order to state the, according to the interpretation of the Patriotic Union, indisputable right of the Chinese local church to elect and ordain bishops also without Roman agreement.



But it is unclear to what extent the nine bishops who were involved in the consecration in Kunming voluntarily participated, and whether they knew about the missing agreement of Rome. That bishop Bernhardine Dong Guangqing (88) of Wuhan was destined to be the leading bishop of the ordination ceremony has a special taste, as the Franciscan belongs to the two first bishops who in 1958 had been ordained without agreement of the then Pope Pius XII and had afterwards been excommunicated for the time being. In 1984 Bishop Dong was acknowledged by the Vatican and strove since then very much for the communication between the official and the underground church in his diocese. It is therefore rather improbable that he now in old age should voluntarily engage in these provocative bishop ordinations.

The Vatican reacted to the ordinations with an official declaration, in which the regret is expressed about the "unauthorized ordinations", which according to church law (canon 1382) are punishable by excommunication. Expressly is stated that obviously massive pressure had been put on some of the bishops who had taken part in the ordination. With it shall probably also be justified that for the time being the Vatican wants to restrain itself from issuing canonical punishments.

The Holy See's readiness to work despite everything in favour of a peaceful solution and a durable agreement with the Chinese leadership is expressly emphasized. In a similar way also the Chinese side seems to be interested in a delimitation of the present tensions, because only few days after the two disputed bishop ordinations Paul Pei Junmin (37) could be ordained on 7 May Coadjutor of the acting Bishop Pius Jin Peixian (83) of Shenyang, both with national as well as with papal agreement.

Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu (45) of the diocese Mindong in the Fujian province, who on 14 May introduced himself as bishop to his diocese, probably rather coincidentally got into the whirl of the arguments about the illegal bishop ordinations. Bishop Zhan belongs to the group of five bishops who were ordained on 6 January 2000 in Beijing without Rome's agreement. Zhan, who was ordained then Coadjutor of the diocese Mindong, returned after the ordination to his diocese and worked as minister in a parish without exercising first the function of a bishop.

As he said in an interview, he wanted to win first the confidence of the priests and faithful. At the same time he strove for Rome's acknowledgment of his ordination. This was missing however till now. Whether he acted on his own or on instruction of the Patriotic Union is not clear. However that may be, he officially took over on 14 May the office of the bishop of the diocese Mindong in a celebration which took place not in the bishop city Fuan but in his hometown Ningde. It was remarkable that the ceremony took place without the assistance of other bishops and with a small participation of the faithful.

Since Benedict's XVI assumption of office one could time and again read in the press about signs of a beginning agreement between the Vatican and the Chinese leadership in Beijing. On occasion of audiences on the St Peter's Place in the last months Benedict XVI had several times welcomed Chinese priests and seminarians in a special way and then stated his strong interest in the development of the Catholic Church in China. A meeting on the occasion of an audience at the St Peter's Place at the beginning of August 2005 found special attention, when the Pope particularly welcomed a group of Chinese rectors and spiritual directors who are working in seminaries which are officially acknowledged by the government, and who gathered information in Germany on problems of today's training of future priests.

Also in the World Youth Day in Cologne in August 2005 about 100 young Chinese from the "Underground Church" took part beside an official delegation of the Catholic Church recognized by the Chinese government. The contacts between the two groups were to a large extent without problems, since the young people had soon found a good relationship to each other.

But there were also time and again other signals from China, which made clear that within the Chinese government the normalization of the relations to the Holy See is regarded as controversial. Thus in the run-up to the Bishops' Synod on the Eucharist in autumn 2005 the Pope had invited four bishops from the VR China, of whom Li Duan of Xian (78), Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai (89) and Li Jingfeng of Fengxiang (83) belong to those bishops who are acknowledged by the government, while Bishop Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar (43) is classed with the underground church. After a longer time for reflection the Chinese government refused then to all four invited bishops the visa for Rome.


Relaxation of Tensions Between the "Official" and the "Underground Church"

In the course of the last years the tensions between the members of the "Underground Church" and those of the "Official Church" were constantly reduced. In the eighties a paper circulated in the "Underground Church". It was attributed to Bishop Fan Xueyan (1907-1992) of Baoding and called the bishops and priests in the "Official" Church traitors,



their ordinations were invalid, their episcopal and priestly actions had therefore likewise to be regarded as ineffective. The faithful were warned against receiving from them the sacraments because they were invalid.

That sharp rhetoric is in the meantime hardly to be heard yet. In many places bishops and priests of the "Official" Church found ways in which they pragmatically and unobtrusively co-operate with the respective representatives of the "Underground Church". At the beginning of the year 2006 there were for the 138 dioceses in the VR China 103 bishops, from whom 65 belong to the "Official" Church whereas 38 are assigned to the "Underground Church". In the year 2005 alone twelve bishops died; three of them belonged to the Underground Church, but only three ordinations for the Official Church took place - all of them with the agreement of the Pope.

For it is no longer a secret that in the meantime most bishops in the "Official" Church got a papal recognition of their ordination. One speaks of at least 70 per cent, whereas others even reckon a portion up to 90 per cent of those who restored their unity with the Pope. In the procedure of the election and ordination of new bishops an interesting development was likewise to be seen in the last five years, with which a practice tacitly accepted by both sides for the time being seemed to have got going.

The potential candidates for the bishop office are at first selected within the Official Church by priests, members of religious orders, and laywomen. Depending on the local conditions then the influence of the Patriotic Union is more or less determining, which often tries to get through its candidates or to induce elected candidates to join the Patriotic Union. Afterwards the names are passed on to the Vatican authorities, so that an agreement about the election and ordination of candidates can be achieved if possible in advance.

These contacts are usually made via Eugene Nugent, who originates from Ireland and lives in Hong Kong. He is officially assigned to the Vatican embassy in the Philippines but is de facto as quasi-Nuncio responsible for Chinese interests. At the end of that procedure the current ordination could then take place with the agreement as well of the Chinese national authorities as of the Vatican. In individual cases it remained controversial whether it was also allowed to make known the Vatican agreement during the ordination by reading out the papal letter of appointment. There have been candidates who insisted on the public reading out of the papal appointment and were only on this condition willing to be ordained.

Also with the ordination of the new Bishop Joseph Xing Wenzhi (42) in June 2005 for the diocese Shanghai the agreement of Rome was made public during the ordination. The same applies to the new Coadjutor Bishop of Xian, Dang Mingyan, who was placed in July 2005 at the side of the seriously ill Bishop Li Duan and to Paul He Zheqing, who in October 2005 was ordained Coadjutor for the diocese Wanxian and is with 37 years at present the youngest bishop in China.



Also in 2006 it seemed as if the tacit agreement was maintained, when on 20 April Joseph Xu Honggen, who had been already elected in 1999 by representatives of the local church, could be ordained Bishop of Suzhou with the pope's agreement.


Why is Rome Snubbed by Ordinations of Bishops not agreed upon?

The last bishop ordinations in the VR China without any agreement with Rome and as provocation of the papal authority took place in January 2000, when in Beijing five bishops were ordained. Also at that time there had at the end of 1999 been speculations that an agreement between Beijing and the Vatican was imminent and that diplomatic relations would soon be resumed. Those bishop ordinations, which were fixed at such a short notice, were obviously an intended provocation on the part of different forces in party and government circles, which together with representatives of the Patriotic Union wanted to prevent an agreement between Rome and Beijing.

Already at that time the hard action of the representatives of the Patriotic Union met with resistance, as some of the intended candidates rejected the ordination, and also some of the bishops who should consecrate, refused to take part actively in the ordination. Also the resistance of a large number of seminarians of the national seminary excited attention; even despite sharp disciplinary actions they were not willing to participate in the ceremony. The relations between Rome and Beijing worsened thereafter again, when on 1 October 2000 John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese martyrs. The Chinese government regarded that as a purposeful provocation of the Vatican and reacted with reprisals in the form of training courses for priests and seminarians in the whole country.

On the part of the Vatican the efforts for an agreement were continued despite all setbacks. Great attention was paid to John Paul II's declaration in October 2001 in Rome, when he apologized for the mistakes of the Catholic Church committed by Catholic missionaries. The Pope mentioned in concrete terms the wrong attitude of some missionaries, who had hurt the feelings of the Chinese people by their too large proximity to the colonial powers then active in China, and their lacking respect for the Chinese culture. At the same time he expressed the hope that it may come soon to new forms of co-operation and dialogue between China and the Catholic Church which were both very old institutions.

Subsequently there were time and again indications for the development of new forms of co-operation, though positive signals were in an embarrassing way overlaid by negative ones: on the one side a vague picture of approximation arose but on the other side that of a further existing disagreement. Many observers see as a possible reason for the current sudden deterioration of the climate between Rome and Beijing Bishop Joseph Zen's (Hong Kong) appointment as Cardinal in March 2006. Because of his frank and sharp criticism of the Chinese religious policy and the communist ideology Zen's appointment was seen very critically in Beijing.

Liu Bainian, the deputy president of the Patriotic Union, openly expressed criticism of Cardinal Zen's person. He argued via press with Zen and criticized the lacking participation of the committees of the Chinese local church in the Cardinal's appointment. The layman Liu Bainian's outstanding role played in those arguments is explained by the particular circumstances resulting from the appointment of leading positions within the "Official" Church in the VR China.

On 20 April 2005 Bishop Joseph Liu Yuanren, the President of the Chinese Bishops' Conference died at the age of eighty two in Beijing. Up to now his post was not filled again. Since also Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan, President of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Union, fell ill and is only to some extent able to fulfil his functions, the abnormal situation resulted that the leadership of the by the government officially acknowledged Catholic Church lies to a large extent in the hands of Liu Bainian. He officially holds only the function of a Vice-president of the Patriotic Union but is de facto rather the managing director.


The Patriotic Union Might See a Cake Turn into Dough

Liu is at present, probably also with the backing by the communist party and government agencies, the driving power in the present argument about the bishop ordinations which took place without Rome's agreement. As reason for the sudden hurry to accomplish within short time as many ordinations as possible without consulting the Vatican authorities, Liu Bainian stated to the press that in China many dioceses were already for many years without bishop and that was an untenable condition, for a diocese could not live and function without bishop.

But that condition is by no means new. It is not reasonable why the solution of that problem should not have been worked out in peace and agreement with Rome. The sudden hurry to remedy that condition has probably rather to do with the fear that after a possible agreement between Rome and Beijing the role which the Patriotic Union could play until now might thoroughly change, or even with considerable certainty become completely superfluous.



This is probably the actual reason why the process of agreement had lastingly to be interrupted by a multiplicity of bishop ordinations without Rome's participation, and with the clear intention to provoke thus the Roman authorities.

The Vatican's sharp protest shows that the intended effect, namely to interrupt the agreement process, was well calculated. Anyway, the Vatican declared that for the time being the examination of bishop candidates from the VR China was for an indefinite period suspended. The present tensions clearly show, that with certain regularity, whenever an agreement between Rome and Beijing seems near at hand, within the apparatus of the communist party and the government forces become apparent which together with certain groups and persons in the Patriotic Union take well-aimed measures to disturb the reconciliation- and communication process and to prevent an agreement.

It remains to be seen whether a pragmatic examination of those political intrigues just also on the part of the Chinese leadership will nevertheless lead to a fundamental change in the assessment of the importance of a normalization of the relations between China and the Vatican. Within international politics in the last years the position of the Pope and the importance of diplomatic relations with the Holy See importantly gained in weight. The long-term interest of the VR China, to be noticed as a weighty and reliable partner in international politics should rather suggest regulating the relations with the Holy See by entering into diplomatic relations.

The approaching Olympic Games in Beijing in the year 2008 intensify the pressure on the Chinese leadership to take steps within the areas of freedom of opinion and religion, in order as reliably as possible to remove existing deviations from international legislations. In the course of a policy aiming at these objects, the Chinese leadership might realize that the attempts to keep the Catholic Church in China in a special position, according to which it is to be forced to go a separate way as independent church, are not enforceable.

The representatives of the Patriotic Union have probably long since understood that they have practically no support among the Chinese Catholics. Their only mainstay is the support by the committees of the communist party and the government, which in the long run probably cannot be convinced by them that the clinging to the present special structures for the Catholic Church was in the long term of any political and social use for the VR China.


    {*} George Evers (born 1936), attained a doctorate with Karl Rahner on religion theology. From 1979-2001 he was an Asia adviser in the Institute of Missiology (Aachen). In this characteristic he undertook numerous journeys into Asian countries and took part in important theological conferences in the context of the Union of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). Numerous publications on interreligious dialogue and mission theology, for example "The Churches in Asia", ISPCK 2005, 599 pages - about the history of the Asian Churches during the last fifty years. This book can be get from the author for 20 Euros! Write to:
    Dr. Georg Evers
    Roetgenerstraße 42 a
    B-4730 Raeren


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'