June 24, 2016


The Catholic Church in China

Let us pray for the Catholic Church in China.

Some people are unaware that there are at least 10 million Catholics in China, perhaps as many as 12 million. Is it any wonder, then, that Pope Francis is trying to have a closer connection with them?

The Chinese government has persecuted Catholics in the past, and occasionally continues to do so. It’s believed that at least two bishops and six priests are still in prison. Back in 1949, the officially atheist government expelled both Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Then, in 1957, the Communist Party established the state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPA), which rejected any authority from the Vatican.

Today, it’s estimated that more than 5 million Catholics belong to the CPA, while the rest of the Catholics are part of an underground Church that accepts Pope Francis as its head.

According to Gerard O’Connell, America magazine’s Vatican correspondent, at the end of 2015, there were 112 Catholic bishops in China, 99 of them in active ministry. Seventy of them are recognized by the Chinese government, while 29 are underground and are not recognized by the government. Currently, the Vatican recognizes all but eight of the 112.

However, the Vatican and the Chinese government disagree on the number of dioceses. The Vatican recognizes 138, which means that there are now about 40 dioceses without bishops. China recognizes only 97 dioceses.

The Vatican is anxious to come to an agreement about the appointment of bishops, or it’s quite likely that the CPA will ordain 10 to 20 bishops without papal approval.

Obviously, both the Catholic Church and the Chinese government claim the right to appoint bishops. The Church has had a long history of disputes with governments over this issue, and wants to retain the right to appoint. But it has compromised with governments in the past and probably recognizes the necessity to do so now.

The usual solution has been for one side to nominate several candidates for the position, and for the other side to select from the nominees. The question, then, is who has the authority to nominate and who has the authority to appoint?

There were reports that China’s President Xi Jinping encouraged talks between China and the Vatican after both he and Pope Francis were at the United Nations last September. He is said to have been surprised, but impressed, that the leader of the smallest country in the world drew so much more attention than he, the leader of the country with the largest population, did. Of course, the Chinese government would not acknowledge that.

Pope Francis, for his part, has made it known that he wants to meet with President Xi. During his visit to South Korea in 2014, he sent a message to the Chinese people as his plane crossed Chinese territory, and President Xi and Pope Francis have exchanged greetings. The pope has entrusted Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s secretary of state, with the task of normalizing relationships with the Chinese government.

The difficulties are considerable. One of them is that the Holy See now has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which China considers part of China. The Holy See would like to have diplomatic relations with both, but that might not be possible.

There’s also the situation with Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai. In 2012, he was appointed an auxiliary bishop by both the Vatican and the CPA. During his episcopal ordination, three bishops recognized by the Vatican laid hands on Ma, but when two CPA bishops were about to do so, Ma rose and embraced them instead. He then announced to the congregation that he was resigning from the CPA. He received prolonged applause from the congregation, but was soon arrested and has been confined to house arrest ever since. In 2014, the Vatican recognized Bishop Ma as the Bishop of Shanghai after the death of Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing has two Masses in English and one in Italian on Sundays. Those of us who have attended one of them can vouch for the devoutness of the Chinese Catholics. During the liturgy, they pray for Pope Francis just as we do.

—John F. Fink

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