Print Version    Email to Friend
Catholic congress an advance or window dressing?

HONG KONG (UCAN): The Ninth Congress of Catholic Representatives, which concluded in Beijing on December 29, oversaw the appointment of office holders in the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, as well as amending the constitutions of the two government-sanctioned Church bodies.

While many of the new office holders are actually old faces, this is not an indication that things will remain the same, as three new ones in the reshuffle tell a different story.

Bishop Yang Yongqiang has been promoted to the bishops’ standing committee. Ordained in 2010 with dual approval from the Vatican and the government, his selection appears to have more to do with his connection with his home province of Shandong than his ability.

Shandong is the home of the 83-year-old string puller in the official Church community, Anthony Liu Bainian, a former seminarian who emerged as a force in Church politics in 1952.

Liu was a delegate at the First Congress in 1957 and has been around ever since, gathering and wielding such immense influence that he has long been dubbed the Black Pope of China.

At the 2010 congress, he was named as honorary president of the Patriotic Association and the bishops’ conference, along with the late Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, from Shanghai, modern China’s most widely-known Church personality.

His new title places the layman above the bishops in both organisations, posing particular dilemmas for the Vatican with the structure of the official Church community.

Liu’s influence has been apparent from the constantly emerging stories that being ordained a bishop was unlikely to happen without his blessing.

Officially, Liu retired several years ago and his honorary title was not mentioned during the Ninth Congress, yet he still sits front row on the stage among the panel of leaders.

Bishop Fang Yingxao was re-elected as the president of the Patriotic Association and with Bishop Yang now in the top echelon of the bishops’ conference, both organisations reflect Liu’s ongoing influence.

It also came as no surprise that the recalcitrant Bishop Paul Lei Shiyin, from Leshan, who gatecrashed two ordinations late last year and has been declared as excommunication by the Vatican, was re-elected to the Patriotic Association.

Also noteworthy is the rise of Bishop He Zeqing, from Wanzhou, to the bishops’ standing committee.

Leshan is in southwestern Sichuan province and Wanzhou is one of two dioceses in Chongqing municipality that has been carved out of Sichuan since 1997.

Bishop Lei has been a vice president in the Patriotic Association since 2005 and, despite the Vatican declaration of his excommunication, has remained a legitimate bishop in the eyes of the government.

As this makes him the most senior official in Sichuan, he was the natural choice to represent the area at the ordinations, to the dismay of the Vatican.

Chongqing is traditionally the ecclesial province of Sichuan, but the diocese only has an unofficial Church community bishop, who is not recognised by the government, leaving Bishop He the only one in the area with approval from both the Vatican and the government.

The upshot of all this is that with Bishop He becoming a leader in a national Church body, he is now in a position to substitute for the bishop who remains under the cloud of excommunication at episcopal ordinations in southwestern area.

Lastly, the official Church now has two leaders from the wealthy coastal province of Fujian; Bishop Zhan Silu, who was ordained without papal approval and was re-elected into the bishops’ standing committee; and Shi Xueqin, the first laywoman to be elected as a vice president of the Patriotic Association.

Government support for Bishop Zhan is apparent, as in June, a member of the Politburo, Sun Chunlan—a powerful official—met with Bishop Zhan when she was on an inspection tour of Fujian.

Sun is the head of the United Front Work Department, which oversees religious activity and Chinese stationed abroad.

In a country where these things matter, in a statement from the State Administration for Religious Affairs released on December 29, Bishop Zhan’s name was listed second of 17 new vice presidents of the Patriotic Association and bishops’ conference.

However, the election of a laywoman is not an echo of Pope Francis’ call for a greater role for women in the Church, but had been previewed by another inspection delegation led by Zhu Weiqun, the head of a committee for religious and ethnic affairs under the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

In a report released in September, the delegation recommended that religious personnel in Fujian with “political awareness and with religious knowledge, morality and noticeable performance,” should be appointed to “positions of at least vice secretary general in national religious bodies.”

Perhaps Fujian is emerging as the model for the continued Sinicisation of the Church promised by the leader of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping.

However, AsiaNews reports that the new curtains being hung in the government-sanctioned structures of the Church may do more to dress the windows than obscure the peering eyes of intrusive outsiders.

Many in the unofficial Church community believe that the main purpose of the Congress of Catholic Representatives is to divide the Church, not unify it.

“However, the faith of Catholics in the Church hierarchy will not be shaken,” a lay person told AsiaNews, adding that causing divisions will not do anything to strengthen the hold of the authorities on either the faith or the ethos of the Church.

An elderly priest commented that he sees Pope Francis as too fluid in his approach, as while he did reaffirm the position taken by Pope Benedict XVI, he did not give any directives as to how bishops should act.

A priest from Beijing added that he believes the Vatican should give the okay for more unofficial bishops to be ordained, as that would make them a majority among all the bishops in the country.

He commented, “Those who are optimistic about the Chinese government are either too naïve or have ambitions for power.”

More from this section