Looking back at the Catholic Church in China for more than 60 years since the Chinese Communist takeover in 1949, we can see that she experienced so many hardships.
For instance, foreign missionaries were
expelled or arrested whereas Chinese clergy escaped or were arrested;
and subsequently seminaries were closed down.
In 1957, the establishment of the so-called Chinese Patriotic
Catholic Association (CPCA) created a large number of “self-elected and
self-ordained bishops” who set up a “Chinese Catholic Church” that went
against the Holy See. Of course, some Catholics were still loyal to the
faith and shed their blood to bear witness to this faith.
In 1966, the Cultural Revolution broke out.
The damage to the
Catholic Church was indescribable, and numerous churches were destroyed.
The Catholic Church was banned since it was regarded as a
counter-revolutionary organization. A number of bishops, priests, and
nuns were forced to leave the religious life.
The visible Catholic
Church was almost nonexistent.
However, prisons served as a refuge for
the protection of Catholic clergy and believers.
In 1978, the Chinese government adopted a policy of reform and “Open
Door” to the outside world. The policy of freedom of religious belief
was gradually implemented.
Bishops and priests were released from prison
one after the other. Pope John Paul II adopted Cardinal Casaroli’s
“Eastern policy” for the Catholic Church in China.
The Holy See granted special privileges to the “underground Church
community” in China so that it could ordain bishops on its own.
See also adopted a conciliatory policy towards the “open Church
community” (officially recognized by the government). As long as the
“illegal” underground bishops expressed obedience to the Holy Father,
they were legitimate.
This dual policy led to an unprecedented situation for the Catholic
Church in China. It gave rise to a period in Chinese Catholic history
that saw a large number of “legitimate bishops” with, in some dioceses,
two or even three bishops.
Under such conditions, it was difficult to
ensure the spirituality and the competence of certain bishops.
In fact, a
number of substandard bishop candidates appeared.
With the progress of society and the convenience of communication
tools, the context for special privileges changed. In 2007, Pope
Benedict XVI issued a pastoral letter to Chinese Catholics revoking such
privileges. This kind of development was inevitable.
To achieve full communion between the Catholic Church in China and
the Universal Church, Pope Francis is eager to reach an agreement with
the Chinese Government in order to make it possible for Chinese bishops
to comply with Catholic tradition. At the same time, the Chinese
government can participate in the process.
The intention and strategy obviously raise major political concerns.
The Holy See has made concessions that have led the Chinese bishops to
having almost no rights in choosing candidates.
This is because the
leaders of the so-called Conference of Chinese Catholic Bishops and
Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association have always been manipulated and
controlled by the Chinese authorities, and act as official puppets.
Therefore, if candidates are selected by the so-called Conference of
Chinese Catholic Bishops, then their appointment by the pope has no
concrete significance at all.
The bishops of underground Church
community cannot recommend candidates who are loyal to the Holy See;
even when underground bishops participate in the Conference of Chinese
Catholic Bishops, they cannot exercise their own rights.
Whether bishops and priests in the underground community are willing
to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association or not is an
inevitable question that must be faced.
The reason is that the
underground Church community has always insisted on its loyalty to the
Holy See, and rejected the CPCA.
But now, as the Holy See appears
willing to reach an agreement with the Chinese government, concessions
will certainly be made.
But whether the underground community can accept
the CPCA or not is a matter of conscience.
We believe that most of the bishops of underground community are
willing to achieve full communion between the Catholic Church in China
and the Universal Church as soon as possible. They are willing to
reconcile with the open Church, even to join it. Many dioceses are
making efforts at reconciliation, such as Hanzhong, Wenzhou, and
Yongnian. They have shown sincerity and their efforts have born fruits.
It is undeniable that in difficult times, the bishops and priests of
the underground community, especially well-respected ones like Bishop
Fan Xueyan of Baoding, Liu Guandong of Yixian, Li Bingyao of Heze, Guo
Wenzhi of Qiqihar, Gao Kexian of Yantai, Fan Zhongliang of Shanghai, and
Huang Shoucheng of Mindong, have defended the hierarchy of the Catholic
Church in China. This is well known to everyone.
The recent case of Dong Guanhua, who was ordained bishop without
papal mandate, is but one; it is not a widespread practice in a Chinese
Church as it moves towards normalization.
First, when Dong Guanhua openly installed himself a bishop on
September 11, 2016, Bishop Jia Zhiguo of Zhengding, who is loyal to the
Holy See, issued a statement on September 13, saying: “Since Dong
Guanhua was ordained bishop privately and inaugurated as bishop on Sept.
11, 2016, Dong and his ordainer have violated Canon 1382 of the Canon
Law, and are subject to latae sententiae (automatic
This shows that the bishops of the underground Church
community, who are loyal to the pope, cannot act like Dong who cursed
Pope Francis and rejected the pastoral letter of Pope Benedict XVI.
In Europe for example, when the Church in Czechoslovakia was under
persecution, some bishops even ordained women priests, but these were
individual cases and could not be taken as disloyalty of the underground
Czech Church in times of difficulties. Similarly, the Church in China
has experienced persecution and suffering for a long time; it is
inevitable that cases like Dong Guanhua’s would appear.
However, if someone has secretly manipulated or conspired to destroy
the image of the underground Church community, they should be condemned.
If someone wants to use Dong Guanhua’s case and his private ordination
as “an act by bishops of the underground community against the Holy See,
that would be unjust and false”.
In particular, bishops like Shao
Zhumin of Wenzhou, Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar, Guo Xijin of Mindong, Jin
Lugang of Nanyang, and Peng Weizhao of Yujiang disagree absolutely with
Dong’s arrogant behavior and do not support him.
Even if Pope Francis changes his strategy vis-à-vis the Chinese
government, and even if the changes are not beneficial to the
underground community, the bishops of the underground Community will not
undertake such outrageous and absurd actions.
At the same time, we should also consider the reason why a case like
Dong Guanhua’s private ordination happened. Many reasons contributed to
it. One should not consider the matter superficially. These reasons are
not only found in the political situation but also in the Holy See
strategy as well as Dong’s radical character.
The case of Dong’s private ordination has alarmed everyone. In the
process of communion between the Catholic Church in China and the
universal Church, as well as the reconciliation between the underground
community and the open community, we must be rational in facing and
pondering the situation so as not to reduce the causes to one’s
interests and attack each other.
One cannot generalize starting from Dong Guanhua’s individual case of episcopal ordination without papal mandate.