Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong interrupted his tour of North American Chinese communities long enough to speak this morning in New York about renewed tensions between Beijing and the Vatican. This morning in Shantou city in southern Guangdong province China's state-sanctioned Catholic church ordained Joseph Huang Bingzhang as bishop. It was the third episcopal ordination this year arranged by China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs that had not received papal approval.
The recent ordinations have broken what had appeared a period of détente between Rome and Beijing as the two forces compete over the loyalties of China’s perhaps 12 million Catholics. A so-called “underground” Catholic Church in China has persisted in loyalty to Rome in defiance of the Communist Party for decades. Two “underground” bishops are currently believed to be held by Chinese authorities, Zen said.
Relations between Rome and Beijing appeared to be improving until November with the ordination of Joseph Guo Jincai. That illicit ordination was followed by another on June 29, when Paul Lei Shiyin, was named as bishop of the city of Leshan, again without Vatican approval.
Zen called the renewed hostilities part of a “war” over the fate of the Chinese Catholic Church, but he believes the latest hostilities have less to do with what Chinese authorities in Beijing want than the intentions of “patriotic” bishops and bureaucrats who direct the state-sanctioned “Catholic” church through the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. “We have doubts if all this is really coming from the top,” he said. Zen charges that lower-level functionaries of the state religious affairs office and unapproved bishops "who have been in power a long time," now feel threatened by new clarity from Rome on the status of bishops who have been elevated without papal mandate. He believes they have begun the series of ordinations with the intention of souring what had been improving relations between Rome and Beijing. “That’s why I appealed to the Beijing leaders to stop this silly thing,” he said.
A June 11 clarification from Rome stated that both the bishop who consecrates without the apostolic mandate and the bishop who receives episcopal ordination in this manner invoke excommunication through their actions under Canon 1382. It is not clear how many of the bishops who have participated in the three ordinations will be subject to excommunication since many appear to have been forced to attend the ordinations by Chinese security officers.
The coercion has led to a standoff in the diocese of Liaoning. Bishop Paul Pei Junmin refused to attend today’s ordination and his residence has been surrounded by diocesan priests and parishioners to protect the bishop from Chinese police. According to anonymous reports from inside China, another pastor, Mgr. Cai Bingrui Xiamen, went into hiding to avoid being forced to attend the ordination and is now wanted by government authorities.
Zen said he was very worried about the deterioration of conditions in China for Catholics. Members of the underground church have had reason to hope they could anticipate a day when they could worship freely, but these recent moves, Zen said, and recent arrests, assaults and intimidation of priests loyal to Rome suggest that Chinese authorities “want to go back to the 1950s.” Still, Zen believes the discord may actually prove an opportunity to bring the Curia and Beijing authorities into a renewed dialogue about the status of China’s Catholics. "We hope that by this new confrontation the Beijing government is made aware of the problems and then may really come to a discussion with the Holy See," Zen said. “Then we may find some solution.”
So far, he acknowledged, Beijing has remained unresponsive to all approaches both from Rome and petitions from his diocese in Hong Kong. “We need to be able to really have a dialogue with the authorities,” he said, “But that isn’t easy because the government never listens.”
Zen said a Chinese scholar once told him that “the Communists never dialogue unless they are forced to.” That’s why he believes the Vatican must now “show strength” if it expects to make progress in China. “Before getting better, it is going to get a little worse,” he added.
Yesterday Zen took the unusual step of issuing an appeal to Beijing via an advertisement in a Hong Kong newspaper in which he asked Chinese leaders “to take the time to care about our Catholics” in China. The cardinal urged Chinese authorities to immediately restrain “rogue civil servants who violate the state Constitution, use violence to help the scum of the Church, and to force the mainland bishops, priests and laypeople to do things that go against their conscience.” At the end, the prelate said “God is merciful, but He cannot bless those who make life difficult for His people.”