The Vatican-Beijing Struggle

Tensions reappear as China’s government-backed Catholic Patriotic Association holds more illicit ordinations.

The long-running struggle between the Vatican and China’s government-backed Catholic Patriotic Association continued through the summer, with the Holy See formally announcing the excommunication of bishops who had been illicitly ordained, and the Patriotic Association condemning Vatican “interference” in what it insists are China’s internal affairs.

The latest exchanges began early in July, with a strongly worded statement from Rome announcing that a Chinese bishop installed by the Patriotic Association “has no authority to govern the diocesan Catholic community.” Father Paul Lei Shying was ordained on June 29 without the required approval from the Pope. The Vatican announced on July 4 that “the Holy See does not recognize him as the bishop of the Diocese of Lushun.”

The Vatican statement went on to say that the illicitly ordained bishop is subject to “the sanction which he has incurred through violation of the norm of canon 1382.” That canon stipulates that a bishop who is ordained without a mandate from the Holy See is subject to automatic excommunication.

The Vatican added that other bishops who participated in the June 29 ordination ceremony “have exposed themselves to the grave canonical sanctions” imposed under the same provision of canon law. The statement left some room for uncertainty as to whether or not the sanctions would actually be applied; previous Vatican statements had indicated that Chinese bishops might escape excommunication if they were compelled to participate in the unauthorized episcopal ordinations.

An illicit ordination “damages the unity of the Church,” and the ceremony in the Lushun diocese “sows divisions and unfortunately produces rifts and tensions in the Catholic community in China,” the Vatican argued. The ordination “deeply saddened the Holy Father,” the Vatican said, but added that he “wishes to send to the beloved faithful in China a word of encouragement and hope, inviting them to prayer and unity.”

Underlining the Vatican’s unflinching opposition to China’s efforts to create an autonomous Catholic body, the Vatican statement said: “If it is desired that the Church in China be Catholic, the Church’s doctrine and discipline must be respected.”

Arrests and abductions

At about the time that the Vatican released that statement, Chinese authorities took into custody a priest of the Handan diocese, who had been scheduled for ordination as a bishop, but had frustrated the Patriotic Association by seeking and obtaining Vatican approval. When two other priests of the same diocese questioned local officials about the disappearance of the bishop-elect, they were placed under arrest.

The ordination of Father Joseph Sun Jigen as bishop of Handan had been scheduled for June 29. Shortly after it emerged that the bishop-elect had obtained Vatican approval for his installation, Chinese authorities postponed the ceremony and took Father Sun Jigen into custody. When the vicar general of the diocese and a member of the presbyter council questioned that arrest, they were taken into custody as well.

As tensions increased, and officials of the Patriotic Association announced plans for further unauthorized ordinations, priests in the Liaoning diocese surrounded their bishop to prevent authorities from arresting him and forcing him to participate in an illicit ordination.

Bishop Paul Pei Junmin—who is recognized by both the Vatican and the Beijing regime—had been ordered to join in an illicit ordination ceremony scheduled for July 14 in the Shantou diocese. Last year authorities had forced him to participate in an ordination in the Chengdu diocese. This year the bishop flatly refused, and gathered his priests around him at his cathedral, forming a protective wall of humanity to make it impossible for police to arrest him without a major incident.

Four other Catholic bishops were not so fortunate. Bishops Liang Jansen of Jinmen, Liao Chongqing of Meizhou, and Joseph Gan Junqiu of Guangzhou—all of them recognized by the Vatican—were seized by police early in July and held incommunicado, so that they could be led into the church where the July 14 ordination was to take place.

Another warning ignored

Just before that ceremony took place, the Vatican issued another warning. On July 12, the Congregation for Evangelization formally announced the excommunication of the newly installed Bishop Paul Lei Shiyin, along with an explanation of that step. The statement made it clear that even if the excommunication is eventually lifted, Lei Shiyin will not be authorized to act as a Catholic bishop. The Vatican also reiterated that any bishops who participated in an illicit episcopal ordination would themselves be excommunicated, unless they could demonstrate that they were acting under compulsion.

Ignoring those urgent warnings from the Vatican, the Patriotic Association went ahead with the episcopal ordination of Father Joseph Huang Bingzhang in Shantou. Bishop Johan Fang Xinyao, the president of the Catholic Patriotic Association, presided at the July 14 ceremony. Eight other bishops, all of them recognized by the Holy See, joined in the ceremony—in at least some cases, under compulsion.

A Reuters report on the Shantou ordination downplayed the use of force by Chinese officials, saying that the eight bishops “were requested by civil authorities” to attend and were “accompanied by police” to the ceremony. In fact, the AsiaNews service reported that several bishops had been taken into custody by police, beginning several days before the ceremony, and transported under guard to Shantou. London’s Daily Telegraph described the Chinese officials’ seizure of bishops as outright kidnapping.

Clarifying bishops’ status

The Congregation for the Evangelization, reacting to the previous illicit ordination, had urged Catholics in China not to receive sacraments administered by Father Paul Lei Shiyin or by the seven bishops who consecrated him. Although these bishops might be validly ordained, the Vatican explained, they had broken communion with the universal Church.

“By the very act of receiving episcopal ordination without the pontifical mandate, Father Lei has already incurred the latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication which is further ‘declared’ publicly by the Holy See,” the Congregation noted. Emphasizing that the Holy See “is the only place he can go for reconciliation,” the Congregation added that “he, though ordained bishop, has no power to govern the diocese. Thus, priests and faithful (except for grave cause, e.g., in point of death) should not only avoid receiving sacraments from him, but also keep him away from celebrating all forms of liturgy or ecclesial ceremony, and to suspend the liturgy or ceremony, in case he does not observe the prohibition.”

If the excommunication is lifted, Father Lei will not automatically exercise his episcopal ministry, the Vatican said. Citing the Code of Canon Law, the Congregation added that the seven bishops who consecrated Father Lei are likewise presumed to be automatically excommunicated because “when an external violation has occurred, imputability is presumed unless it is otherwise apparent.” They are not permitted to “continue their normal episcopal ministry.” These bishops are expected to provide an explanation for their involvement in the illicit ordinations.

Addressing the question, “What if a consecrating bishop in his conscience holds that he has not incurred the excommunication?” the Congregation replied:

“Conscience” is a sacred place where the bishop in question has to stay honest to God. However, other people cannot see through his conscience. As long as the “presumed imputability” is not removed, the bishop in question has to abstain from all public ministries. In the meantime, he remains obliged to approach the Holy See.

The priests and the faithful should “avoid receiving sacraments administered by” the seven bishops and “are very much encouraged to pray for [them] and to remind [them], when needed, of the teaching of the Church.”

Soon after releasing that statement, the Vatican followed up by saying that the same logic applied to the episcopal ordination in Shantou. Father Joseph Huang Bingzhang is excommunicated, the statement confirmed, and those bishops who joined in his ordination ceremony should be presumed excommunicated as well.

In the same statement, the Vatican complained that some bishops had been unwilling to participate in the illicit ordination ceremony, “and also offered various forms of resistance, yet were reportedly obliged to take part in the ordination.” The statement said that Pope Benedict XVI “deplores the manner in which the Church in China is being treated.” The Vatican praised Chinese Catholics who had resisted the pressure from the Patriotic Association to accept bishops who are not in communion with Rome, as well as the bishops who had refused to join in the ceremony.

The willingness of faithful Catholics to resist government pressure became more apparent as the month of July wore on. Four bishops from Guangdong, who had been taken into custody and accompanied by police to the ceremony in Shantou, made a point of having the Vatican’s statement read aloud in their dioceses when they returned, clearly conveying the impression that they had been compelled to participate in the ceremony against their will. In Harbin, Patriotic Association officials were forced to shelve plans for another ordination because of the staunch resistance of the faithful—including, reportedly, the priest who had been selected to become a bishop.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired bishop of Hong Kong and outspoken critic of Chinese efforts to control the Church, praised the “underground” Catholics who continued to resist government pressure, and encouraged Catholics elsewhere in the world to recognize what was at stake. “This is war,” the cardinal said. “You can start a new church, but don’t call it a Catholic church.”

Final volleys

Father Joseph Guo Jincai, who was ordained a bishop in November 2010 without a papal mandate and now serves as vice chairman of the Patriotic Association, remained defiant, announcing plans for the ordination of seven more bishops in the near future.

Perhaps more ominously, the Chinese government’s ministry of religious affairs denounced the Vatican for an “extremely unreasonable and rude” reaction to the illicit ordinations. In a statement marked by patronizing language, the Chinese government said that the priests who had been ordained as bishops were “devout in their faith, their integrity and competence,” and the Vatican had hurt the feelings of many Chinese Catholics by refusing to accept the new bishops’ authority. “The majority of priests and believers will more resolutely choose the path of independently selecting and ordaining bishops,” the government insisted.

The government statement contained what appeared to be a demand: that the Vatican must rescind the “so-called excommunications” of the illicitly ordained bishops in order to allow progress in relations between Beijing and Rome. The Chinese government has previously said that diplomatic relations will be possible only if the Vatican breaks off ties with the government of Taiwan and pledges not to “interfere” in the internal matters of the Chinese Catholic Church.

Cardinal Zen reacted angrily to the government’s statement, condemning the “preposterous and ridiculous” efforts by an officially atheist regime to govern a religious body. The cardinal said: “It is absurd to hear the statements of politically-correct state puppets defending Beijing’s policies.”  

The institution that Beijing seeks to build, Cardinal Zen said, “can no more be recognizable as Catholic,” and the officials who are pursuing that policy are “making themselves the laughing stock of the world.”

Cardinal Zen exhorted the loyal Catholics of China to maintain their ties to the Holy See. Saluting their steadfast determination to preserve the unity of the Church, the cardinal underlined his feeling of solidarity by describing himself as “an old brother who is almost ashamed of living in freedom.”

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.