Will Vatican kowtow to Beijing on church freedoms?

Special to WorldTribune.com

By John J. Metzler

NEW YORK — Imagine an agency of the United States government directly choosing and appointing the Catholic Bishops of Washington D.C., St. Louis, Denver and Boston.

In other American dioceses there’s close coordination between the fictional “American Religious Affairs Council” and the Vatican on choosing a particular prelate. Though this practice appears out of a Dystopian future, it’s precisely the formula China uses in controlling the Catholic Church on the Mainland since the 1950’s.

Thus there’s an “official” Patriotic Catholic Church and a proscribed “underground” Church. The Leaders of the flock, namely the Bishops of the particular Dioceses, belong to one or the other and sometimes bridge both groups.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former Bishop of Hong Kong, has warned that the naive pope is “selling out” the Catholic Church in China.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former Bishop of Hong Kong, has warned that the naive pope is “selling out” the Catholic Church in China.

In the past, the Vatican had firmly opposed what amounts to this dictate where a temporal government, in this case China, supplants the spiritual directives of the Holy See for purely political purposes.

Surprisingly Pope Francis and some Vatican progressives may soon be willing to “do a deal” and compromise with the People’s Republic of China over Beijing’s already appointed state-sanctioned Bishops!

Regrettably, the Vatican’s political kowtow to Beijing’s right and spiritual writ over church matters is not only a sellout of the loyal faithful but a direct contravention of Canon Law, which outlines that Bishops worldwide are appointed by the Pope in Rome and not by respective national governments.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former Bishop of Hong Kong, has accused the Vatican of “selling out” the Catholic Church in China. Cardinal Zen opposes the Vatican seeking such a deal with Beijing, which he argues would “damage the church’s credibility.”

According to Hong Kong’s respected South China Morning Post, Cardinal Zen has called Pope Francis “naive” saying he doesn’t know the Chinese communists and “the people around him are not good at all.”

Recently, Vatican official Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo visited Mainland China offering slobbering deference to Beijing’s “extraordinary” social policies claiming they were “a positive national conscience” close to Church teachings. Whether this was a trial balloon set aloft by Pope Francis or a naive gaffe remains uncertain. Nonetheless it mirrors just how far the Holy See is willing to rationalize it’s rapprochement with the Middle Kingdom.

Britain’s Catholic Herald reports that Hong Kong Catholics signed an open letter cautioning a “proposed deal would allow the Vatican a say in the appointment of Chinese bishops in exchange for recognizing the ones already appointed by the Chinese government.” Catholics warned of a “schism” or split in the Chinese church if the plan goes forward.

Following Mao’s conquest of the Chinese Mainland in 1949, there was a predictable crackdown on Christians, especially Catholics. Arrests, deportations and Church closings were the order of the day. American Bishops serving in China such as Francis Xavier Ford, who was tortured and died in a communist prison, and others like Bishop James Walsh were released after years in captivity.

By 1957 during a bid to compromise the faithful and put on a smiling face to the world, Beijing set up the so-called Patriotic Church Association. This group under the regime’s rubber stamp People’s Congress, would lend some legitimacy to the atheistic state’s plans to co-opt, control and eventually eradicate religious freedoms. Subsequently the “Patriotic Association” seized church properties; many would later reopen as functioning Parishes but as part of the collaborationist Patriotic network.

By 1980 the Patriotic Association set up the “Chinese Bishops Conference” as to blend in with international Christian groups.

Through seemingly complex, the truth is actually quite simple. Under the Vatican’s Canon Law, Bishops are appointed by Rome, not the temporal government. While there’s no doubt that many faithful are participating in the state-sanctioned churches, the onus is not on them but those who willingly collaborate with the State power.

There are currently about 100 Catholic Bishops in China, with some approved by Beijing, some approved by the Vatican and many “now approved by both” according to the BBC. The number of Chinese Roman Catholics stands at ten million.

Though the communists expelled the papal nuncio from China in 1951, diplomatic ties with the Holy See continue with the Republic of China on Taiwan.

Not long ago, the Diocese of Brooklyn in New York initiated the long path to the canonization of the late Bishop Ford who died in prison in 1952.

Facing the ongoing controversy the Tablet of Brooklyn opines, “Let the cause for sainthood continue and let’s pray to Brooklyn-born Bishop Ford for a change of heart in the state controlled mainland. That could be his first miracle needed for canonization.”

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]