Crackdown in China takes church 'back to the time of Mao'

ROME -- New government pressures on the Catholic church in China, including the election of an illicitly ordained bishop as the new president of a government-controlled bishops’ conference, threaten to “turn the clock back to the times of Mao Zedong,” according to an influential Vatican China-watcher.

Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, director of the “Asia News” agency and a longtime Vatican advisor on Chinese affairs, said Dec. 10 that the results of an early December assembly of Catholic groups recognized by the country’s Communist government, but not by the Vatican, “reaffirms the power of the Party over the church” and “risks reopening the wounds of division within the church.”

Though Cervellera does not hold an official Vatican position, his views on China are routinely consulted by Vatican diplomats, and often reflect the thinking of senior church officials.

There's a widespread sense in Rome that recent events represent "the end of a spring" in China, in the words of an essay carried today on the front page of Corriere della Sera, Italy's most influential daily, by Catholic writer Alberto Melloni. Just a year ago, Melloni noted, a thaw between Rome and Beijing seemed to be leading towards a gradual resolution of longstanding church/state tensions.

The latest row began Nov. 20, with the ordination of a new Chinese bishop, Guo Jincai, without approval of the pope.

Since the Communist rise to power in China in 1949, government policy had been to try to promote an “autonomous” Catholic church in the country, controlled not by Rome but a government-sponsored “Patriotic Association.” That policy led to a stark division between an “official” church in China which cooperated with the government, and a “catacombs” church which spurned Communist influence.

In recent years, the Vatican has worked toward rapprochement, encouraging bishops and clergy to come out into the open, while also pressing the government to respect the freedom of the church. That policy was expressed in a May 2007 “Letter to Chinese Catholics” from Pope Benedict XVI, which supported ending the division between an official and an underground church, while defining the government-controlled Patriotic Association and bishops’ conference as illegitimate.

In China, the letter was widely seen as as a signal of détente with the government.

The test case for whether the government would meet the Vatican halfway has always been seen as its willingness to defer to Rome on the selection of bishops, and in broad strokes that had seemed to be the recent policy: According to Melloni, ten of the last eleven Catholic bishops ordained in China were approved by Rome.

That, in turn, is why the Nov. 20 ordination was seen as a provocation.

The early December elections for leadership in the Patriotic Association and the government-controlled bishops’ conference seem certain to reinforce that impression. The new president of the bishops’ conference is Giuseppe Ma Yinglin of Yunnan, who was ordained without papal recognition. Another illicitly ordained bishop is among the vice-presidents, and Jincai is among the newly chosen vice-presidents of the Patriotic Association.

The new president of the Patriotic Association, Bishop Johan Fang Xinyao of Linyi, was ordained with papal approval, but is also seen as a figure willing to cooperate with the government authorities.

According to Cervellera, the presence of so many illicitly ordained bishops at the top of the country’s official Catholic agencies “raises the fear that from here on, it will be impossible to ordain pastors for China who are in communion with the Holy See.”

In effect, Cervellera said, it seems to be deliberate policy of the Chinese government “to want to create chaos in the church,” while also “extending the control of the Community Party over the entire official church.”

Other observers, however, suggest that the recent elections for the Patriotic Association and the bishops’ conference may represent a Pyrrhic victory for the government – a technical success but a PR failure, underscoring the lack of real religious freedom in China.

News reports, for example, suggest that several of the 64 “official” bishops who attended the meeting did so only under strong government pressure. According to a report in an Italian newspaper, one bishop apparently fled by car rather than attend the session and is now being sought to face criminal charges.

Another sign that Chinese Catholics at the grassroots are chafing at government pressure came in recent days in a seminary in Hebei, where a hundred seminarians protested against the nomination of a new vice-rector, a member of the Communist Party, by the local ministry for religious affairs. The reaction was so strong, according to local sources, the nomination had to be withdrawn.

Longtime China-watchers caution that it will take some time to see where church/state affairs actually stand in the wake of these new tensions. Relations between the Vatican and China have often been marked by a one-step-forward, one-step-back dynamic; both sides pride themselves on pragmatism, yet both have deep concerns about surrendering control of the local Catholic church to the other.

It’s possible, those China-watchers say, that the recent crackdown will be matched in the near future by some new gesture of reconciliation, intended to keep balance in the relationship with Rome.

In the meantime, however, most observers agree on one point: The new controversy has made a papal trip to China, long an ardent Vatican desire, seem even less likely as a near-term prospect.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here