Written by Jackie Sheehan.

Choosing the successor to one of China’s best-known Catholic bishops will provide an early test of relations between Beijing and the Vatican under Pope Francis

The death on Saturday of 97-year-old Aloysius Jin Luxian, the Catholic Bishop of Shanghai, highlights one of the trickier issues in the in-tray of Pope Francis: Who has the authority to appoint bishops to the Church’s vacant dioceses in China? The orthodox answer is a simple one: the Pope, and no-one else, has this authority. But the recent practice in China has been more complex, with conflict over the consecration of bishops becoming the main obstacle to better Sino-Vatican relations. Even the issue of the Vatican’s recognition of Taiwan now seems to hinge on it, as the Holy See has indicated than an agreement over the appointment of China’s bishops could persuade it to cut ties with Taiwan.

China’s 16 million Catholics include approximately six million in congregations registered with the government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), and an estimated 10 million believed to be worshiping in unregistered “house churches”, with both groups growing in size. CPA Catholics have to abide by the PRC’s 2005 Religious Affairs Regulations, which require “independence, autonomy and self-management – religious bodies, venues and religious affairs cannot be dominated by foreign powers.” This has been less of a problem for lay Catholics than it might appear, as former Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2007 Letter to China’s Catholics, indicated that allowances would continue to be made for those in China who accepted sacraments from bishops not consecrated with a Papal mandate nor reconciled with Rome after consecration within the CPA.

But the Letter indicated that a sterner attitude would be taken towards those holding office in China in the bishops’ conference of the state-controlled Church, and called the statutes of the CPA “incompatible with Church doctrine.” The Chinese authorities have been trying to speed up the appointment of new Catholic bishops in recent years, as nearly half of China’s 97 dioceses are presently vacant, and some of those serving are extremely elderly. The lack of candidates for the vacant dioceses in spite of the flourishing of Catholicism in China reflects the difficult position in which clergy find themselves when their highest loyalty to the Pope conflicts with the demands of state control over the CPA. Many are concerned that they will face excommunication if they accept appointment to a Chinese diocese without Papal approval.

This has already happened to several of those appointed by the CPA as bishops since November 2010, when the previous arrangement by which appointments were agreed by both Beijing and Rome broke down. Paul Lei Shiyin was excommunicated after being named Bishop of the city of Leshan in June 2011, with the Vatican stating that “his ordination was an illegitimate act which damaged the unity of the Church.” The same happened to Joseph Huang Bingzhang, ordained in July 2011 as Bishop of Shantou without Vatican approval.

The Chinese authorities have striven to show that CPA-appointed bishops are legitimate and enjoy the support of lay Catholics and clergy in China, by attempting to compel as many bishops as possible to participate in ordination ceremonies and to perform the laying on of hands. At the ordination without papal approval of Joseph Guo Jincai as Bishop of Chengde, there were reports of the church being surrounded by uniformed and plainclothes police, with cameras banned from the ceremony and mobile phones electronically jammed in the immediate area. To ensure their participation, several north China bishops who were in communion with Rome were put under house arrest several days before the Chengde ceremony, and then taken to the church under guard. One who refused to take part in the ceremony, Bishop John Liu Jinghe of Tangshan, was subsequently removed from his post in retribution. In the case of the Shantou ordination, one bishop took refuge in Shenyang cathedral to avoid having to officiate.

Bishop Jin did have a designated successor: the Rev. Thaddeus Ma Daqin. But on his appointment as auxiliary bishop of Shanghai in July 2012, and to reported applause from the congregation, Ma announced that “In the light of the teaching of our mother church, as I now serve as a bishop, I should focus on pastoral work and evangelization. Therefore, from this day of consecration, it will no longer be convenient for me to be a member of the patriotic association.” He was taken from St Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai by Religious Affairs Bureau officials shortly afterwards, and has been under house arrest – the CPA prefers the term “on retreat” – ever since.

So the Shanghai appointment to succeed Bishop Jin will be more sensitive than most. However, it is in the new Pope’s favour that he is a Jesuit, an order which since the days of Matteo Ricci’s residence in Beijing has been viewed in China as one engaged in promoting scientific exchange and intellectual outreach, rather than as bent on cultural conquest, like the 19th century Christian missionaries who followed the imperial powers’ gunboats into the country. It was notable, also, that Beijing’s response to the meeting between Pope Francis and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou following the new Pope’s inauguration was much less strident than might have been expected.

But times when peace threatens to break out between the Vatican and Beijing can be the most dangerous ones for Catholic house-church members. Forcing as many as possible to register with the CPA and abide by its rules – including political qualifications for clergy, and no preaching from the Books of Genesis or Revelation – while suppressing the rest would, from Beijing’s point of view, clear the ground for a new understanding with Rome over management of Church appointments in China. The PRC is already two years into a 10-year plan with exactly this aim of registering or destroying all house churches, and reports of the arrest of Catholic priests and the closure of seminaries continue. Seeing how Beijing handles the succession to Bishop Jin will be an important signpost for future developments, but even if Rome’s prior approval of the appointment is sought, this does not mean China’s millions of house-church Catholics should expect the same consideration or conciliation from the authorities over the next few years.

Jackie Sheehan is Associate Professor in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.

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