The first "independent" ordination was that of Bishop Bernardino Dong Guangqing, which took place in 1958. The director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Wang Zuoan, reiterated the independence of China’s Catholic Church and the self-ordination of its bishops. The goals are sinicisation and subordination to the Communist Party. Is a China-Vatican agreement possible by March?
Beijing (AsiaNews) – During a visit to the two national Catholic organisations – the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) and the Chinese Bishops’ Conference (CBC) – in Beijing on Thursday, Wang Zuoan, director of China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs, reminded Church leaders to “walk unswervingly the road of an independent Church principle and the ‘self-election and self-ordination’ of bishops.”
Wang stressed the principles of independence and autonomy of the Chinese Church during and after the Communist Party Congress held last October. During Wang's visit, Mgr Joseph Ma Yinglin, head of the CBC, announced that this year the CPCA and the CBC plan a symposium to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the "self-election and self-ordination" of bishops.
The CPCA and the CBC are state-sponsored organisations that are not recognised by the Vatican. Ma Yinglin is one of seven unlawful bishops who are waiting to be recognised by the Holy See.
China began to choose and ordain its own bishops after the Holy See rejected the demand for approval made by Bishop Bernardino Dong Guangqing (1917-2007), and threatened to excommunicate him before his ordination ceremony, held on 13 April 1958. Only decades later did the Holy See pardon him and recognise his episcopal status.
Some people with optimistic views about the development of the Church in China and its relations with the state think that the symposium will not necessarily lead to a new series of unlawful episcopal ordinations, which Wang Zuoan had threatened to do in the past.
But, a Chinese researcher who asked his name be withheld warned that China will not stop using slogans about "independence" unless an agreement between Beijing and the Holy See is reached. He noted that the Ninth Assembly of Catholic representatives in 2016 insisted "on the principle that an independent Church is the foundation of a Chinese Church".
Among this year’s other important tasks mentioned during the visit, Bishop Ma Yinglin mentioned the implementation of three systems to democratise Church management along the main line of a five-year plan to “sinicise” the Catholic Church, which implies its subordination to the Communist Party of China. Xi laid out the plan in October and its implementation began last December.
However, on its website the CPCA does not explain what the three systems entail. Some Chinese Catholics say that managing the Church in a democratised way is supposed to mean controlling its life through the participation of lay people, thus diluting hierarchical authority. In reality, they note, there is no real democracy in China.
Wang Zuoan's visit to the CPCA and the CBC took place a week before the Chinese New Year, which falls on 16 February, coming against the backdrop of reports that the Holy See has asked the legitimate bishops of Shantou and Mindong to step aside in favour of two unlawful bishops, as requested by China.
Other reports, not officially confirmed by the Vatican, suggest that the Holy See is ready to reach an agreement with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops, in which the pope would have "the last word". A deal could come out of the next round of negotiations in Rome after Chinese New Year celebrations, which end on 2 March.
It is unclear whether negotiations will take place before or after China’s two most important annual political events, namely the meetings of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – which are held at the beginning of March.
The two meetings are the first important events since the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China held last October. They will confirm the government posts that top Communist leaders will hold.
Wang Yang is the only member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee whose name is on the list of the new CPPCC released in January. In all probability, he will be appointed CPPCC president.
Last Tuesday, when he met with the leaders of national religious organisations, Wang stressed that religions "must implement in full the party’s basic guidelines for religious activities and adhere to the direction of sinicisation of religions."
Some media, citing Vatican sources, have reported that the Holy See is desperate for a deal since it does not want unlawful episcopal ordinations to happen anymore, and cannot imagine the situation getting worse in the next 10 or 20 years.
For his part, Card Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, is opposed to what he deems a bad deal on the grounds that the Communist Party of China seldom abides by the agreements it signs.
Government representatives say that the transition from underground to official bishop is the result of negotiations with the Vatican. The ceremony took place with the reading of the "Letter of Approval" by the Council of Bishops and the candidate’s “patriotic” pledge. Mgr Han Zhihai is a "smart steward". On 16 November 16, the ordination of another official bishop is scheduled to take place in Handan.
The first, an underground bishop not recognised by the government, was cremated and hurriedly buried. The faithful and priests were forbidden to attend the funeral Mass, and taking pictures at the service was banned. The second, a bishop with the official Church and a political advisor to the Chinese parliament, was exposed for several days honoured and his funeral was open to concelebrants and the faithful.
The Assembly ended yesterday aimed at "dividing the Church in China". For an elderly priest, "Pope Francis’ position is ambiguous and vague." Allowing underground bishops into China's bishops' conference would give them the majority. The "optimistic" towards Chinese government are either "naive" or "ambitious."