Bishop appointments in China: Pope vs the Communist Party

February 08, 2018 08:01
It seems that the Catholic Church, with 2,000 years of history, has been outmaneuvered by a Communist upstart founded less than 100 years ago. Photo: Reuters/Xinhua

Ever since the Roman Catholic Church and China began a dialogue in the 1980s, it was known that, one day, the Vatican would have to decide what to do about the nation’s Catholic population, divided between those who had suffered persecution for remaining loyal to the pope and others who had joined the schismatic church created by the Communist Party of China, which did not recognize the authority of the pope but was subject to the sway of the party through the state-created Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

In the 1950s, shortly after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the country’s Communist rulers broke diplomatic ties with the Vatican, expelled or imprisoned its priests and missionaries, and decided that Chinese Catholics would follow the leadership of the Communist Party.

If the Communist Party refuses to make concessions, what would the Vatican do about those who stayed loyal to the pope and those who succumbed to Communist pressure?

Now, we have the answer.

According to widely published Vatican sources, Pope Francis has asked two bishops of the underground church to step aside so that they can be replaced by two others chosen by the Communist Party and whom the church had previously labeled illegitimate.

This is part of a pattern. In all seven bishops ordained despite the Vatican’s opposition, some of whom had been excommunicated, will now be legitimized by the Church, while those who had tenaciously clung to Rome as their spiritual leader are now being told to obey the pope and step aside for the Communist-selected bishops to take over.

The world’s oldest Christian institution, it seems, with 2,000 years of history, has been outmaneuvered by a Communist upstart founded less than 100 years ago.

The lesson the rest of the world is likely to learn is that it is useless to oppose the Communist Party if even the Catholic Church, with millennia of accumulated wisdom, in the end had to capitulate. In fact, the pope had to sacrifice those who had been most loyal to him, because that was the demand of the Communists.

One of the illegitimate bishops, Huang Bingzhang, was ordained bishop of Shantou, in Guangdong province, in 2011. He was told by the Vatican not to accept ordination at the hands of Fang Xinyao, president of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, but did so nonetheless.

The Vatican announced his excommunication from the Church and expressed its appreciation of the “resistance” of bishops and other faithful to his illegitimate ordination. Among those who refused to take part in the ordination was Zhuang Jianjian, a priest who had been secretly ordained as bishop with the approval of the Vatican in 2006 and who was the leader of the underground church in the area.

Now, the pope’s emissaries have asked the 88-year-old Bishop Zhuang to resign so that Huang can be legitimized as the Catholic bishop of Shantou. His excommunication would be lifted and he would be recognized by the Vatican as the legitimate bishop.

Another case is that of Mindong in Fujian province, where the underground bishop is Guo Xijin and the official bishop is Zhan Silu. The Vatican asked Bishop Guo to demote himself to become an auxiliary bishop, assisting Zhan, who would be recognized as the legitimate bishop of Mindong.

According to Vatican reports, in future, the patriotic association – not the Vatican – will continue to nominate bishops, but the pope will have a “veto”. This is being presented as a victory.

But it is hard to see it as such. For one thing, the Vatican is giving in on all seven cases where it had objected to choices made by the party-led church. It is difficult to see how in future it will be able to “veto” bishops that have the blessings of the Communist Party.

This is not a case of rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. The Communist Party has shown that, while it doesn’t believe in religion, it intends to make decisions that are fundamentally religious, even spiritual, in nature.

Already, the party has given itself the authority to decide who can be reincarnated in Tibetan Buddhism, even though party members are expelled if they believe in the religion.

The Church, by giving up the right to appoint bishops, is allowing agents of an atheistic government to determine who its shepherds in China will be, while casting aside those who had served it faithfully for decades. It is sad that almost decades of Communist rule have brought even the Catholic Church to its knees.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.