Though both China and the Vatican have made efforts in recent months to better diplomatic relations, Beijing’s recent announcement of its intention to ordain Catholic bishops in 2015 without the Pope’s approval is sure to extinguish whatever good will had been achieved.
This month, the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) launched its work plan for 2015 that includes new ordinations without papal mandate. As recently as last November, Beijing had expressed a willingness to compromise on the ordination question, offering two possible scenarios for the joint naming of Catholic bishops in China.
In the first case, the candidate would have been selected by the diocese, but would be consecrated only after obtaining the consent of the Holy See. In the second scenario, SARA would have proposed the names of two candidates to the Holy See for each vacant post. If neither were to receive a thumbs-up from the Vatican, the selection process would have started over from scratch.
Now it seems that these compromises have been scrapped.
Some of the Catholic faithful in China have reacted strongly, refusing to participate in the ceremonies of the illicit bishops. According to reports from AsiaNews, one Catholic said that the government is treating the Catholic Church in China “as if it consisted of slaves.” He said that “all the clergy and all the faithful with a conscience should boycott the illicit ordinations and abandon the Patriotic Association and the Council of Bishops.”
“When will the pastors of the Church start refusing to cooperate and stand up to defend the true Catholic faith?” he asked.
Last week, the underground bishop of Qiqihar, Joseph Wei Jingyi, called the relationship between the Catholic Church and China “an open wound, which must be treated and cured,” and stressed the urgent need to “overcome this rift between the Church and China,” which “ends up causing a division among ‘official’ Catholics and ‘underground’ Catholics within China.”
Beijing’s decision will likely block any hope of dialogue between China and the Vatican, since ordinations without papal mandate are one of the few points where the Church continues to remain firm in its demands on China.
In its work plan for 2015, SARA stated that religious work will be carried out “following religious regulations, promoting the rule of law and taking into account the opinion of the faithful in implementing religious policy and the directives of the central government.”
If carried out, the plan risks creating a new set of illicit bishops, who will be automatically excommunicated according to Church law. From 2006 to 2012 China ordained at least five illicit bishops, eliciting criticism from the Vatican for the lack of religious freedom in the country.
Though SARA’s work plan speaks of “taking into account the opinion of the faithful,” reactions from rank-and-file Catholics seem decidedly negative at this point.
“Since illicit ordinations are contrary to Catholic doctrine,” said one, “there will always be more clandestine ordinations, and the situation will get out of control.” Another Catholic wrote an open letter to Zuo’an Wang, SARA’s director, denouncing “the government policy of interference in the internal affairs of the Catholic Church.”
One Chinese priest told AsiaNews that “in all probability, the Chinese government officials do not wish to continue to dialogue with the Holy See.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.