Saturday, November 27, 2010

Bishops for pawns

THE first to disappear was Joseph Li Liangui, the Bishop of Cangzhou. 

He was seen leaving his house with government officials on November 12th. 

Three days later, Bishop Peter Feng Xinmao of Hengshui stopped answering his mobile telephone.

Both men re-emerged on November 20th in the city of Chengde in north-eastern China at a ceremony that has prompted the most serious crisis to come between between the Vatican and China’s government in years. 

Messrs Li and Feng were among eight bishops who took part in what the Vatican regards as an illicit episcopal ordination: that of the Reverend Guo Jincai. 

A member of the Chinese parliament, the National People’s Congress, Mr Guo is a former vice secretary-general of China’s government-backed  Catholic church, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA). 

China-watchers close to the Vatican believe he is being groomed for yet higher office in the state apparatus that oversees religious activity. 

Hence Beijing’s determination to have him elevated.

Chinese officials ignored repeated objections to his ordination conveyed by Rome through the informal channels whereby the Holy See maintains contact with the Chinese leadership (they have no diplomatic relations).  

According to the Holy See’s press office, all the bishops at the ceremony were coerced into attending—a claim denied by the CCPA’s vice-president, Liu Bainian. 

Dozens of police surrounded the building and reporters were prevented from entering.

The Communist Party forced China’s Catholics to cut their links with the Vatican in 1951 and then created the CCPA six years later.

The effect of its clampdown was to create an “underground” faction of the church loyal to the pope. 

Estimates of the number of Catholics in China vary widely (most put the figure at between 12 and 15 million) though it is generally accepted that the underground part of the church is significantly bigger than the CCPA. 

In recent years there has been some overlap and reconciliation.

China had stopped ordaining Catholic bishops without Vatican approval in 2006, when both sides adopted a practice of agreeing informally on mutually acceptable candidates. 

In 2007 Pope Benedict wrote China’s Catholics a letter that was seen as conciliatory to the authorities.

It described the naming of bishops by the Vatican as a guarantee of church unity, but said it was “understandable” that the government would be attentive to the choice of church leaders whose functions had civil as well as spiritual implications. 

The weekend’s ceremony sent relations between the Vatican and China back to the dark days of before that truce was struck.

Relations had appeared to improve since then, although progress was sometimes halting. 

Last year, the Chinese authorities again arrested Julius Jia Zhiguo, a much-imprisoned bishop of the underground church who had been working for its reconciliation with the CCPA

Yet so far this year, ten bishops acceptable to both Beijing and the Vatican have been ordained.

The latest ceremony has shattered the perception of gradual improvement that those ordinations had brought about. 

And it has inspired some unusually harsh language from the Catholic side. 

“Once more, they have crucified Jesus,” declared Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a former archbishop of Hong Kong and a leading adviser to the pope on Chinese affairs. The methods used to force the bishops to take part in the ceremony, he said, were “fascist”.

A statement from the Vatican on November 24th was only slightly less strident. 

It called the treatment of the bishops a “grave violation of freedom of religion and conscience” and said the implied claim of the authorities to guide the life of the Catholic church “offends the Holy Father, the Church in China and the universal Church”.

The road back from Chengde looks like being a long and arduous one.