Recent reports from China tell of "a bitter struggle" between the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Vatican over the ordaining of bishops.
Three new government-approved bishops were ordained in the last eight months without approval of the Vatican, an act that has provoked declarations of outrage from Rome. The cardinal of Hong Kong labeled the situation a state of "war," and recently, another government-appointed bishop was excommunicated by the pope.
All this puzzles me because, since 1951, no bishop has been ordained in China with the approval of Rome, yet the two sides had managed to co-exist -- barely.
When my wife and I visited China in 2002 (see NCR story "The yin and yang of China's contradictions"), we were well aware of tension between the official Catholic Church, which brooks no oversight by a foreign government, and the unofficial, illegal underground Catholic Church, which adheres firmly to the absolute jurisdiction of the pope over the selection and functions of bishops.
During our tour, sponsored by the U.S. China Catholic Bureau, Maryknoll Sr. Janet Carroll took us to many cities and introduced us to countless priests and bishops, all members of the official church. We attended masses overflowing with worshipers participating with enthusiasm and heard hymns that everyone sang. We visited seminaries packed full with eager young men and convents with young sisters in smart, streamlined habits preparing to teach or work in hospitals.
Repeatedly we were told by credible sources, including several bishops themselves, that a cooling-off of the old disputes was underway. We were assured that the Vatican had begun privately accepting the legitimacy of many of these official bishops. We even spoke with someone who had been serving as envoy between Rome and the bishops. It seemed Pope John Paul II was seeking a way through the impasse.
We also learned that many of these new, official bishops had not been imposed from above by Beijing but were in fact chosen by the laity and clergy of their own dioceses, with the approval of the government.
The prediction was that this official, thriving above-ground church and the beleaguered underground church would eventually merge rather than carry on a useless feud. But it was also clear, though we were not allowed to visit the underground faithful, that some underground leaders and members were fanatics in their position and would prefer martyrdom to a truce with the Chinese government.
So how did it all go sour? Is the Chinese government determined to provoke the Vatican? Or is it that the underground church, always resentful of its illegality and proud of its loyalty to Rome, is becoming more visible and militant? Or has Pope Benedict XVI decided to take a new hard line to make clear he will tolerate no alternatives to obedience?