Vatican’s conflict with China
Once again, the Roman Catholic Church is in conflict with the Communist Party of China, with the newly ordained auxiliary bishop of Shanghai having publicly repudiated the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which was established by the Chinese government to exercise supervision over the nation’s Catholics.
Ironically, the consecration of the new bishop, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, at Saint Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai on July 7 had been agreed to by the Vatican and the Chinese authorities and so his appointment was not expected to be controversial.
Instead, it was the ordination of a new bishop in Harbin the previous day without papal endorsement that was expected to bring fireworks.
In fact, the Vatican had issued a warning that the episcopal ordination of Father Joseph Yue Fusheng without papal mandate would be contrary to the rules of the church. It warned that the new bishop be considered illicit and that he would be automatically excommunicated from the church. Any prelate taking part in the ceremony would also incur excommunication, the Vatican said.
Beijing considers the appointment of bishops in China as an internal affair in which the Vatican should not intervene. The Vatican, however, considers it to be a religious matter in which secular authorities should not have a veto.
The Vatican and the Chinese authorities have been conducting an on and off dialogue for years and, in fact, for several years, Beijing halted the ordination of bishops without papal approval.
But then, there was a breakdown and in November 2010, a priest, the Rev. Joseph Guo Jincao, was ordained bishop of Chengde, in northeastern China, without papal endorsement, the first such ordination since 2006.
Last year, three such “illicit’’ bishops were ordained.
While the Vatican considers such bishops to be “illegitimate,’’ it takes the position that they are validly ordained and so have the powers of a bishop, even though they are not in communion with Rome.
In May 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a letter to Chinese Catholics in which he set out the position of the church.
In the letter, the pontiff made clear that the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, established by the government to create a church in China independent of Rome, is “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.’’
On Saturday, Bishop Ma said that he wished to devote himself to his new duties and, as a result, “it is not convenient for me to be a member of the Catholic Patriotic Association.’’ While his words shocked the Chinese officials present, they were greeted with prolonged applause by the congregation.
It is likely that the Vatican, too, was surprised by his action since there are currently bishops in communion with Rome who are members of the association.
In fact, this is the first time since the patriotic association was set up in the 1950s that a Catholic bishop had publicly announced his resignation.
China has already reacted negatively.
The patriotic association and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China ― which is not recognized by the Vatican ― have charged that the ordination of Bishop Ma “allegedly violated regulations’’ of the bishops?conference.
It is likely that the Chinese authorities will repudiate the ordination and withhold their recognition of him as a bishop.
Unlike Henry II of England, who asked “will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest’’ the Chinese government need look no further than its own patriotic association.
The communist party, which arrogates to itself the right to decide who will be bishop, will have no difficulty in deciding who to defrock.
Already the Shanghai diocese’s website refers to him simply as “Ma Daqin,’’ without any title.
This latest crisis in Sino-Vatican relations was triggered off by an individual decision but it was bound to happen.
China had been putting the Vatican in an impossible position by forcing bishops faithful to the pope to attend the consecration of illicit bishops. At the same time, it tried to have illicit bishops be involved in the ordination of those accepted by the pope.
All these actions make clear that Beijing has not given up its goal of having a church in China that is Catholic in name but that does not accept the authority of the pope.
This is tantamount to the creation of another Protestant church ― something to which the Vatican will never agree.
On its part, the Vatican should realize that the Communists are unlikely to accept a Catholic church that recognizes the pope’s authority.
This impasse is unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Email the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.