CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Widely varied reaction to Cardinal Tong

HONG KONG (SE): The future of the Sino-Vatican dialogue from an ecclesiological point of view published by the bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, in the Sunday Examiner on February 12 is reminiscent of a university debate where one team sets up and defends a hypothetical argument and the other attacks it.

Father Sergio Ticozzi, a one-time colleague of Cardinal Tong at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, describes the paper on a possible scenario for Church-state relations in China as a literary style commonly used by journalists from the Communist Party, as it is not so much a report on objective facts, but a description of a reality the author would like to see unfold in the future.

The missionary from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions says that what Cardinal Tong discusses is the theoretical ecclesiology pertaining to the appointment of bishops, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the distinction between forgiveness and excommunication, as well as the administration of a diocese and episcopal status.

Writing for AsiaNews, Father Ticozzi points out that the paper is suffused with optimism as a counter to the pessimism that has been expressed in other quarters.

The general reaction to the cardinal’s work notes that there is joy in the optimism and its sense of pragmatism also hints that he is not talking about something that is absolutely out of reach.

Nevertheless, as undoubtedly Cardinal Tong does as well, many see a host of practical hurdles to be jumped before the destination is even close.

Some fear describing a Patriotic Association as a purely charitable outreach is contradictory, since even though it is constituted as a voluntary association, in effect every bishop recognised by the government has to join it.

This is exemplified in the case of Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin in Shanghai, who quit the organisation at his ordination in 2012 and has spent his days ever since under house arrest.

Only now is he emerging from the shadows with his reinstatement back into the body he quit.

However, there is general recognition that the matter of bishops’ appointments is the top priority in any agreement acceptable both to the Vatican and Beijing, as it impinges directly on the essential sacramental life of the Church, but distinguishing between what may get written down on paper or tacitly agreed to, and the reality of machinations is seen as the really sticky area from where the pessimism arises.

The fear is that the linguistic acrobatics and the meddling with the power base may not always see the will of the pope fulfilled.

In addition, many Catholics have long memories of the damage that the Patriotic Association has done and are in no mood to trust it, irrespective of its theoretical make up.

But among the bishops there are two glaring difficulties. There are now seven bishops who have accepted ordination without a mandate from the pope and Beijing wants them recognised.

In addition, there are now 29 bishops ordained with Vatican blessing, but without the benediction of the government, which it wants rectified. Some opinion has it that this is a tougher request than the government is making over the illegitimately ordained.

The man known as the lay pope of China, Liu Bainian, the former head of the Patriotic Association and its current patriarch, poured cold water on the idea, pointing out that they are not considered fit to work with the government, so there would be no room for them at the table of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China or the Association.

He also scoffed at the idea of the Patriotic Association becoming a charitable body, as it exists basically to keep tabs on religious activity.

Lai Yan-ho, a researcher into civil society, social movements and democratisation in Hong Kong, says in a post on the UCAN website that endorsing the existence of the Patriotic Association would give an excuse for the Communist Party to expand it into Hong Kong and Macau.

“It carries a high possibility since the Communist Party has been practicing a political strategy of penetration, or what the opposition parties in Hong Kong blamed as mainlandisation over the past decades,” Lai writes.

He adds that to turn the defection of hearts in Hong Kong away from Beijing around, formal and informal patriotic education has been promoted, in which Christians in the city are already actively engaged.

“The autonomy of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong would be at risk if the Patriotic Association is legitimised and expanded,” he fears.

But the most contentious argument of Cardinal Tong is his distinction between entire freedom and essential freedom.

He describes essential freedom as embracing the legitimate ordination of bishops and the introduction of people into the Church, although the right to educate, maintain property and other matters of normal Church operation are denied.

A priest in China writing on AsiaNews under the name of Father Wang comments that the idea of essential freedom may be dangerous, as to not have absolute freedom can equate to having no freedom at all.

“Truth and freedom are related,” he says. “Freedom is not true if it does not draw from the truth.”

Others questioned if the Church can be considered to have essential freedom if it is not free to express its prophetic voice in society, as that is one of the essential elements of evangelisation, as distinct from simply giving witness.

Lai wonders that if the essential freedom is still conditional, whether it can be true and guaranteed. “Can it be said that the Catholic traditions will be recovered?” he queries.

An article published by AsiaNews under the pen name of Taxaing Lüren (foreign traveller) queries whether the description of essential freedom needs to be broadened somewhat, as worrying about the method of appointment without the right to exercise authority could well be counter-productive.

He says without this expansion of the concept it may be difficult to distinguish between any agreement in the future and the standoff situation of the present.

He adds that the cardinal’s article did not raise much enthusiasm among Catholics on the mainland and that the major Catholic websites did not post it, as many believe that amidst the current tightening of controls on Church life nothing will change anyway.

“It seems that people have chosen an attitude of silence or decided to read it without commenting on it,” he says.

Nevertheless, he stresses that the hope that Cardinal Tong holds on achieving an arrangement to ensure that bishops are legitimately appointed and ordained is the number one concern and would be the fulfillment of a 60-year dream for Chinese Catholics, although he says his arguments are limited and not convincing.

While this is the second time that Cardinal Tong has hinted that an agreement between the Vatican and Beijing is immanent, the discussion remains theoretical as he is unable to put any flesh on the bones as to whether it will be written or tacit, binding or non-binding or just a two-way understanding.

Or maybe he is just flying a kite to test reaction.

Nevertheless, most seem to agree it is better to dialogue than put up the shutters.

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