CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 9 June 2018

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Hidden wordplay in congress lingo

HONG KONG (UCAN): The most positive signal coming out of the Ninth National Congress of Catholic Representatives held in Beijing from December 27 to 29 is that the phrase China’s electing and ordaining bishops on its own appears only once in the work report on the period since the previous conference in 2010.

A phrase coined by Beijing in the 1950s to refer to the election and ordination of bishops under the authority of the state, it was not mentioned by Bishop Ma Yinglin, the current president of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China who is not recognised by the Vatican, in his description of the outlook for the Church over the coming five years.

Nor did the phrase feature in a speech given to the congress by Wang Zuo’an, the director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

This is being interpreted as a positive signal towards the Vatican, which has been demanding a stop to the ordination of bishops without approval from the Holy See in its dialogue with Beijing over the past couple of years.

By not using this phrase government authorities are indicating that they at least agree to continue their dialogue with the Vatican over the issue of bishop candidates.

This at least gives some grounds to suspect that new bishops ordained in the near future will have dual-recognition from both the Vatican and from Beijing.

The last ordinations without papal approval took place during 2011 and 2012. There were three of them.

But in all probability the government has dropped the use of the phrase because it is an open secret that the majority of bishops in the official Church community have, for many years already, been approved and appointed by the Vatican prior to the local elections arranged by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association to choose bishop candidates.

There have been only a few exceptions to this practice. There have been cases in which local Church sources say that government officials only agreed to hold their election after the candidate had received Vatican approval.

In fact, there does not seem to be any reason for government to continue deceiving itself, as ordaining bishops without approval from the Vatican creates complications due to strong opposition from local people.

Nevertheless, Catholics in China that know the ways of the Communist Party well say, “Don’t be happy too early.”

But the word that requires a bit of scrutiny is insist. It was used three times in the report at the close of the congress. It was also stressed three times in an official press release from the State Administration of Religious Affairs at the close of the conference in December.

It was used once in reference to the principle of an independent Church with no links to the Vatican, and again in verifying that the National Congress is the immutable foundation of the Church in China.

When studying speeches or textual documents from China, each word must be scrutinised carefully. Some commentators have said that when the Chinese authorities speak about the independent principle of the Church, it does not explicitly indicate a Church that has severed its relations with the Vatican completely.

However, what it does do is leave plenty of space for manipulation by the government, both at times when relations between Beijing and the Vatican are good and when they are testy.

However, the most significant phrase in the statement from the State Administration is the one on the immutable foundation of the Church in China.

The original Chinese is anshen liming. It is noteworthy that this idiom is frequently used in speeches of top state leaders.

Anshen literally means to take shelter and liming refers to where life is based. In the context of the congress, it means that the system, which is not found in the normal function of Church hierarchy, is a matter of life and death for the Church in China and cannot be changed.

Given that it is the congress, rather than the pope or the Vatican at the helm of the bishops’ conference, it becomes a euphemistic way of rejecting the influence of the Vatican.

But personalities count too and the news that Bishop Shen Bin, from Haimen, is to play a greater role in national Church bodies was leaked before the congress got under way.

Bishop Shen, who was ordained in 2010 with dual approval from the Vatican and the government, has become the only bishop to assume the vice presidency in both the Patriotic Association and the bishops’ conference.

In addition, he is to be stationed in Beijing as an executive vice president.

Some non-Chinese commentators say Bishop Shen’s greater role may allow him to replace bishops in national Church bodies that are not recognised by the Vatican and are interpreting this as a friendly gesture toward the Holy See.

But given that the approval for his ordination only came after he was confirmed as a candidate by the state, he does not seem to be a favoured son of the Holy See.

However, government backing for Bishop Shen is apparent from the whispers of insiders, who are saying that the government once considered him as a replacement for Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin in Shanghai.

Bishop Ma has been under house arrest since his dramatic resignation from the Patriotic Association at his ordination ceremony in 2012.

In addition, Shanghai is considered to be a stronghold of the Catholic Church with 150,000 people, while Bishop Shen’s diocese of Haimen only has only 50,000.

Last September, three cities were carved out of Nanjing diocese and given to Haimen seemingly as a punishment for Bishop Lu Xinping, from Nanjing, for defying a government instruction and as a reward for Bishop Shen.

One example of Bishop Shen’s cooperation with the state that stands out is the 90th anniversary of the ordination of the first six Chinese bishops in 2016, including the late Bishop Zhu Kaimin, who was from the same diocese he now heads.

Bishop Shen held a symposium on Sinicisation in November to commemorate his predecessor, but it was more a response to the government call for a Sinicised Church.

Perhaps a veiled reason for his dual role is to enable the removal of part of the administrative powers of Bishop Ma Yinglin and Bishop Guo Jincai, neither of whom have Holy See recognition, as president and secretary-general of the bishops’ conference.

Bishop Ma and Bishop Guo are among the four illicitly ordained bishops that the Vatican may be considering for pardon.

But if these two key people in the bishops’ conference were pardoned, the national Church body would be one step closer to being under Vatican control.

The removal of some of their power indicates that they are no longer politically trustworthy in the eyes of the Communist Party.

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