By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Western society is increasingly China-obsessed, and with good reason. At some point in the not too distant future the Chinese economy will become the largest in the world, and China’s growing foreign policy reach is affecting realities on the ground in hot spots such as Darfur, Burma and Zimbabwe – not always, in the eyes of critics, for the better.
Catholicism, too, has its eyes on China. Today, a special Vatican commission on the church in China issued a message to Chinese Catholics at the conclusion of an April 11-13 meeting in Rome.
The statement addresses what it calls a "general climate of disorientation and anxiety about the future" among Catholics in China, following a recent resurgence in government pressure after what had seemed a gradual thaw.
Sometimes what’s most interesting about Vatican statements is what they don’t contain, and that's the case here: While the statement expresses deep concern about a recent ordination of a bishop without papal approval, as well as a rump national Catholic assembly dominated by the Communist government, it stops just short of explicitly decreeing excommunication for Catholics who took part in those events – including the bishop himself, Joseph Guo Jincai.
“External pressures and constrictions,” the statement says, “could mean that excommunication is not automatically incurred.”
The use of the conditional term “could” leaves open the possibility that in some cases, especially if a bishop or other Catholic participated in these actions out of assent rather than pressure, excommunication might still apply.
Speaking on background, a Vatican official said that formula amounted to a compromise between two currents within the commission -- one which wanted to send a clear signal by imposing ecclesiastical punishment, and another which believes in a gentler touch.
Though there are no official numbers, the usual estimate is that China’s Catholic population is in the neighborhood of 13 million. Conventionally they’re divided into an “official” church that collaborates with the government, and an “underground” church which spurns state control. In reality, observers say that distinction isn’t hard and fast, and that Chinese Catholics negotiate their interaction with the state in a wide variety of ways.
In effect, today’s Vatican statement seems to strike a balance between two opposing readings of the Chinese situation.
One is articulated by retired Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, who recently decried a policy of “Ostpolitik” which he associates with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, suggesting that it has led to “slavish subjection” to the state. Zen isn’t alone; recently another longtime Catholic China-watcher, Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, rued the “blind optimism of various Vatican personalities.”
The more dovish take is associated with Belgian Fr. Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Scheut missionary and frequent Vatican advisor on China, who typically favors détente with the state as a means of ending the rift in the church.
In the end, the Vatican statement denounced the November 2010 ordination in Chengde of Joseph Guo Jincai, in which eight bishops participated, as “gravely illegitimate,” and said those bishops must explain themselves to their priests and people. It did not, however, impose the “deserved punishment” which Zen demanded in a recent commentary.
Likewise, the statement denounced the eighth National Assembly of Catholic Representatives, held last September, for legitimizing government-controlled bodies (including a bishops’ conference not recognized by Rome) which are “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.”
The statement also expressed concern that many dioceses in China don’t presently have bishops, and openly pleaded with the Chinese government not to make things worse by orchestrating the election of additional bishops without papal approval.
Both on the selection of bishops and on reorganization of the ecclesiastical map in China, the statement signaled a willingness to engage in “sincere and respectful dialogue with the civil authorities.”