I recently attended Mass at a Catholic Church in Shanghai.
Nothing remarkable about that except that like most Catholic Churches in China, things aren’t quite what they may seem. What struck me was that there was a huge, almost lifesize photograph of the Pope with a summary of his life story, alongside a picture of St Peter.
The congregation were English speaking people from many nations and their genuine faith and devotion was evident. During the Eucharistic prayer, however there were the first signs that things were not quite as they should be. The names of the Pope and bishop were missed out. While others went to receive communion, I read the newsletter which contained a touching story about the persecution of Catholics in England under the first Queen Elizabeth, when “faithful Catholics had to keep a low profile and would worship in secret places”. Ironically, this is the situation of many Chinese Catholics today.
The Chinese Catholic Church is sometimes described as being split between the illegal and persecuted 'underground' Church which is loyal to Rome and the official or ‘Patriotic’ church controlled by the communist People’s Republic of China. The Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religion but there cannot be 'outside interference'. The Papal appointment of bishops is seen to contravene this and so the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPA) was set up in 1957 to do this instead. Pope Pius XII deplored the attitude and activities of the Association and declared as excommunicated the bishops who consecrated new bishops selected by the CPA.
Pope Benedict XVI referred to the agents of the Association as "persons who are not ordained, and sometimes not even baptized", who "control and take decisions concerning important ecclesial questions, including the appointment of Bishops.”At first glance it is simple. The so called ‘Underground Church’ consists of Catholics who won’t compromise and the ‘Patriotic Church’ consists of those who have given into government regulation and interference. In many ways it could be seen as similar to the Church of England under Henry VIII. The government appoints bishops and has the supreme authority but the faith and sacraments are essentially Catholic in that the doctrines – except that of Papal authority – are the same.
Pope Benedict XVI said in May 2007: “the proposal for a Church that is 'independent' of the Holy See, in the religious sphere, is incompatible with Catholic doctrine.” He does not speak of the Patriotic Church or Underground Church but distinguishes between those who accept state control and those who do not. Those who accept state control are under the auspices of a body which is an organ of the communist state and is controlled by a group of people, many of whom are not even Christian.
The situation is complicated by the fact that many bishops appointed by the state subsequently request and often receive Papal recognition. All of these episcopal and priestly ordinations according to a Catholic rite are considered to be valid although the Pope makes it clear that those who do so without Papal mandate or subsequent legitimisation cannot be considered to be Catholic. It is estimated that about 70% of the bishops appointed by the communist Patriotic Association have been subsequently been approved by the Vatican and most visitors to these churches would see them as the local Catholic Churches. Why would Catholics therefore not chose to worship at these churches, something that they can do openly?
Millions of people in China refuse to attend these Masses and do so in secret. Many have been arrested, some imprisoned and others claim to have been tortured. One difficulty seems to be that whilst bishops are often legitimized by the Pope, their subsequent behavior can seem to be schismatic. The Bishop of Beijing was approved by the Vatican and by the Patriotic Association and yet has implied since then, that he sees the church as independent. Literature on sale in the Cathedral bookshop in Beijing describes the Chinese Church as 'independent'.
In Shanghai is a Catholic Cathedral and within the grounds is a flagpole flying the national red and gold flag of the People’s Republic of China. A sign at the Cathedral forbids anyone from taking photographs. One Japanese couple who ignored this had their camera taken from them by force by security. Pictured to the left is a luxurious building describing itself as the Catholic clergy residence which is next to the slightly shabby Shanghai Cathedral. One priest who is in contact with loyal clergy told me that this is basically a bribe to lure into the Catholic Patriotic Association Catholic priests who had previously stayed loyal to the Pope.
In another part of China, I had a conversation with a priest, who for obvious reasons asked to be quoted anonymously. He said that there was a Catholic priest who was originally loyal to the Pope but subsequently decided to join the Patriotic Association. He was rewarded for this by being chosen to be a bishop and consecrated, contrary to Canon Law without Papal approval.
Some years later his appointment as bishop was recognised by the Vatican. I asked this priest, “why do so many people then stay with the underground church when they can worship openly in a church that is not persecuted?’ He replied that many priests and faithful say that while the ‘Vatican’ may recognise that man as a bishop, they see him as a traitor. “He is not our bishop. He has left his flock to gain all the privileges that the state can afford him.”
Surely, a group claiming to be faithful to the Pope, cannot refuse to recognise a man whom the Vatican has now approved? Has the Vatican been misinformed? My contact claimed, "Enemies of the Pope in the Vatican are undermining faithful Catholics in China.” He stressed that Pope Benedict himself loves and cares for the faithful, loyal Catholic community but that he is surrounded by sycophants, career churchmen and people whose love for power appears to exceed their love for Christ. If a power-hungry Vatican diplomat can get the Holy See and China to establish diplomatic relationships then that would make them seem very influential. Perhaps they would receive worldy recognition and perhaps be appointed to high office themselves?
Pope Benedict makes it clear in his Letter to Chinese Catholics: “The present College of Catholic Bishops of China cannot be recognized as an Episcopal Conference by the Apostolic See: the “clandestine” Bishops, those not recognized by the Government but in communion with the Pope, are not part of it; it includes Bishops who are still illegitimate, and it is governed by statutes that contain elements incompatible with Catholic doctrine.” An example of this is that in September 1995, the CPA approved Bishops’ Conference issued a pastoral letter calling for all Catholics to support China’s ‘Platform for the Development of Women’ that includes birth control, sterilization, and the one family-one child policy whereby women who are pregnant after having one child are forced by the Chinese government to abort their unborn babies.
Joseph Kung, the nephew of the brave and saintly, Cardinal Kung travelled with him to the United States after he had been released from years of imprisonment. He is President of the Cardinal Kung Foundation which presents what he sees as the truth about the church in China. He stresses that the persecution of loyal Catholics continues to this day. He points out that many people worldwide hear stories about the Catholic Church in China but do not know that this refers to the communist controlled Patriotic Association. He emphasises the irony of many Catholic missionaries returning to China at the invitation of and operating under the supervision of the communist controlled Patriotic Association but without the permission of the loyal bishops.
The situation is clearly complicated. There are good people who have in conscience made different decisions as to how they live out their faith in China. One Catholic priest in China felt that God was calling him to be a priest and after a great deal of thought and prayer, decided to study at a government approved seminary. He does not like the way the church is run in China (although cannot say this in public) but he does believe that working within the framework of the Chinese Patriotic Association means that he can minister to more people and he does see the Pope as the spiritual head of the church even if he does not appoint the bishops at the moment.
We cannot judge the hearts and motivations of others but we can help the persecuted church. See http://www.cardinalkungfoundation.org/ for more information and let's pray for Catholics in China.