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Underground Chinese Priest Suspended for Joining State-Run Church

Chinese Catholic clergy prepare to attend a mass during the Christmas Eve at a Catholic church in Beijing on December 24, 2018.
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images
THOMAS D. WILLIAMS, PH.D.

A recently released underground Chinese bishop has suspended a priest for joining the state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) and promoting a false “communion” between the underground Church and the open Catholic community.

Bishop Augustine Cui Tai of Xuanhua in the Hebei province issued a statement on March 3 confirming the suspension of Father Zhang Li, who reportedly switched to the open community and encouraged others to follow him, which led to about 100 Catholics embracing the authority of the CPCA and rejecting the authority of Cui.

Over the last 25 years, Cui has been repeatedly punished for his participation in the underground Church, which the Chinese Communist Party does not recognize, and has been placed in detention, placed under house arrest, or sent to labor camps holding “illegal” religious assemblies. He was most recently released from prison on January 23.

Since 1957, China’s Catholic Church has been split into underground and open communities, with the latter going by the title of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. A Vatican document of 1988 barred Roman Catholics from participating in the sacraments of the CPCA, noting that the patriotic association had issued a proclamation saying it “had broken all relationships with the pope” and would be “under the direct control of the government.”

In 1988, Pope Benedict XVI reached out to Catholics in China with an open letter in which he praised their faithfulness, encouraged their perseverance, and laid out new guidelines for the life of the Church in China.

Bishop and priests of the CPCA, on the other hand, have loyally toed the Communist Party line, insisting that citizenship must take priority over Christian faith.

Bishop Peter Fang Jianping of Tangshan said a year ago that Catholics should give their allegiance to President Xi Jinping “because we, as citizens of the country, should first be a citizen and then have religion and beliefs.”

Fang, who was ordained a bishop in China without Vatican approval in 2000 and later legitimized by the Holy See, is a member of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the Chinese parliament.

Asked about church-state relations, the bishop justified his subordination of the faith to political powers by citing Jesus’ injunction to render to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Last summer, bishops of the CPCA told dioceses to draft local versions of a national “Sinicization” program to bring the Catholic Church into line with the ideals of the Communist Party.

In June, the CPCA, together with the collaborationist Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC), delivered a 15-page, five-year Sinicization program to all dioceses, and directed the dioceses to create their own modified five-year plans by the end of August.

The Sinicization campaign is being carried out according to new regulations that have tightened government control over all religious activities in China. The regulations, which came into effect on February 1, 2018, outlaw all acts of worship outside of designated church structures and government-authorized schedules.

Many Chinese Catholics fear that their government is abusing the goodwill of the Vatican to seize further control of the Church and the faithful.

One source who asked to remain anonymous told the Union of Catholic Asian News that the government was exploiting Zhang to push its agenda of unity, with the goal of subsuming the underground Church into the CPCA.

“They wish to suppress the underground church and to attempt to incorporate the underground church into the official church controlled by the government,” the source said.

“We will follow the concrete instructions given by the pope and the diocese on how to proceed. We will achieve unity under the pope and the Church’s hierarchy, but not be unified to the official church’s institutions under the principles of independence, autonomy and self-administration,” he said.

In his statement, Cui said that Zhang “with an unauthorized manner massively promoted the so-called communion, leading to confusion and a counterproductive result of division.”

Pope Francis has tried to allay the fears of Chinese Catholics and others who believe that the Vatican has ceded too much authority to the Communist Party in the internal affairs of the Church. The pope wrote a letter to China’s Catholics in September 2018 saying that he understood their worries but urged them to trust him.

Francis said he is convinced that “encounter can be authentic and fruitful only if it occurs through the practice of dialogue, which involves coming to know one another, to respect one another and to ‘walk together’ for the sake of building a common future of sublime harmony.”

In the Provisional Agreement, he said, the Holy See has desired “only to attain the Church’s specific spiritual and pastoral aims, namely, to support and advance the preaching of the Gospel, and to reestablish and preserve the full and visible unity of the Catholic community in China.”

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