Print Version    Email to Friend
Beijing’s meddling with personnel a new headache for Vatican

HONG KONG (UCAN): The two government appointed Catholic bodies, the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, have released revised constitutions placing Sinicisation at the centre of their operational philosophy.

The new emphasis in the constitutions of the two bodies is being interpreted as part of a broader strategy by Beijing to put a stronger Chinese flavour into religion, which also means a stronger Communist socialist ethic.

Other changes in the area of the appointment of senior officials will put the two government-run bodies at even greater odds with standard Church practice, underscoring the difficult road ahead as the Holy See continues its talks with Beijing over, in the first instance, the appointment of bishops.

Sinicisation is now clearly and specifically included in the constitutions of both the bishops’ conference and the Patriotic Association.

The amendments, made during the Ninth National Congress for Catholic Representatives held in Beijing from December 26 to 29 last year, a controversial event held every five years which is not recognised by the Vatican, were posted on the website of the Patriotic Association and the bishops’ conference on February 27.

The changes come in the first three chapters beginning with the Preamble; then in the Scope of Mission; and Organisational Structure and Creation and Dismissal of Personnel In-Charge.

In the preambles of both organisations, the phrase “insist on the direction of Sinicisation” has been added to aims, which is still articulated by the existing slogan for an independent and self-support principle in running the Church.

While the constitution of the Patriotic Association pledges its role to “contribute to the Chinese dream on the great revival of the Chinese race,” the constitution of the bishops’ conference has changed the phrase from “pushing forward the building of an inculturated theology” to “the building of a Sinicised theology.”

A Catholic commentator, Yu Si, says that inculturation means blending local culture to fit in with Church doctrine, while Sinicisation means changing Church doctrine to fit in with Communist Party politics.

Yu stressed that although officials from the two national Church bodies maintain that inculturation and Sinicisation are one and the same thing, they are really playing with words to confuse the true issue.

Sinicisation was a key word in in the speech delivered by the president, Xi Jinping, at the National Conference of Religious Works in April 2016, which is still seen as sending a message that religions must embrace the Chinese characteristics of socialism while upholding the primacy of the Communist Party.

The People’s Daily published three articles in July, reiterating the importance of Sinicisation and asking religious groups to “resist control from a foreign version of the same religion.”

The Communist Party sees a dichotomy in the Catholic Church, in that the religion is foreign, but Catholics in China themselves are not.

The revised constitutions have raised the bar for the leadership of both of the Patriotic Association and the bishops’ conference.
Observers see obvious restrictions, like limits on holding office, as just one more form of state control.

Previously the two organisations only had to report changes of leadership to relevant government departments, but in the revised constitutions, they will have to submit changes for the authorities to review and approve.

If the existing president resigns or is impeached and has to step down, the acting president of either organisation will no longer be elected, but will be selected.

This change has come about because the authorities fear that even if they have a president that fits their requirements, the Vatican may instruct the other bishops to overturn the existing one and sneak a Vatican-approved one into the position.

“Selection means the authorities or the national Church bodies will designate a few candidates for their members to choose from. It is a different concept from election where you can choose whoever you want,” Ruo Wang, from Hebei, commented.

Father Joseph, a priest blogger in China, said, “The two changes will prevent underground (unofficial community) bishops from taking a lead in the bishops’ conference if they are subsequently recognised by the government under an agreement with the Holy See.”

He explained that first they create an initial hurdle through designating the candidates for selection in case the existing president is forced to step down and then the selected candidate needs to jump through another hoop to get the final approval from the authorities.

The most far-reaching alterations to the constitutions of the bishops’ conference and the Patriotic Association are about the selection of honorary presidents and advisers.

Now both bodies can make appointments to these positions whenever they deem necessary.

In their previous constitutions, there were four requirements for these honorific titles, which have now been dropped. They included that candidates had to be chosen from among leaders of the previous congress and that the nomination had to be passed by the National Congress.

Bestowed for only one term, the honorary presidents and advisers attend joint meetings of the two bodies.

Father Joseph said that by dropping this requirement, the authorities can now add an individual at the upper levels of the Patriotic Association and the bishops’ conference if they do not approve of the performance of the existing leaders.

The priest from the unofficial Church community said that he believes it would demean the very concept of the bishops’ conference if, as he foresees being possible, a lay honorary president is placed above them.

At the Eighth National Congress, Anthony Liu Bainian, a layperson who has been dubbed the black pope of China because of his immense influence on the Church in China, was made an honorary president of both organisations, along with the late Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, from Shanghai.

The constitutions of both organisations have also reduced the age ceiling limit for office holders in the bishops’ conference and the Patriotic Association from 75 to 70 years.

In the Scope of Mission, the phrase “assisting the clergy” in the bishops’ conference constitution has been changed to “assisting the Church affairs organisation” in order to raise the quality of parish ministry.

The words “mutual respect” have also been added to the description of their mission to carry out friendly exchanges with Catholic communities in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and around the world.

According to the Basic Law for Hong Kong and Macau, relations between religions in mainland China and their counterparts in the two special administrative regions “should be based on the principles of non-subordination, non-interference and mutual respect.”

Father Joseph said this “means a line of non-interference has been drawn between exchanges with the Church in China and outside, including the two special administrative regions on Chinese soil. This is also an emphasis on the status of the Patriotic Association.”


More from this section