Up From the Underground?

The Pope’s Letter to Chinese Catholics, released on June 30, received a brief flurry of media and blog coverage (at Shanghai Scrap, too!), and then receded into shadows cast by more immediate and (for some people) controversial Papal communications. Yet the lack of coverage – both in China and abroad – should not be taken as a sign that the Letter’s impact was brief and limited.

I’d like to briefly examine the election of Fr. Li Shan to be Beijing’s next bishop in terms of the Letter’s content, as well as recent and not-so recent Chinese Church history. But before I get to it, I want to point readers to an event and theme that is more immediately related to the Letter’s text.

Rick Garnett, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in church/state relations (and a regular at the very interesting Mirror of Justice blog), recently posted an insightful comment to Shanghai Scrap:

… it does seem to me that “official” recognition is not regarded as necessarily inconsistent with the freedom of the Church, even though “principles of faith and ecclesiastical communion” do constrain the conditions to which the Church submit as part of the process of official recognition. But how, precisely?

Garnett is quite right: How, indeed? For several weeks, now, interested parties inside and outside of China have speculated upon and even offered direction on how official status can be reconciled with the principles of faith, but – significantly – nobody (Chinese) in a position to demonstrate by example stepped forward.

That changed on July 12, when the underground bishop of Qiqihar, Joseph Wei Jingyi, released a letter that offers the first outlines of an answer to Garnett’s question. Unfortunately, the complete text of the letter has not been released to the media (so far as I know), so we are left with tantalizing excerpts as printed by UCAN and others (first reports of the letter emerged on July 18). I strongly encourage those interested in this topic to read the UCAN story. For now, I’ll sketch out some impression based upon that report.

First, it is important to note that Bishop Wei is among the most distinguished bishops in the underground church. In 2005, he was one of four Chinese bishops – and the only one belonging to the underground – invited to the Vatican Synod on the Eucharist.

Anyway, according to UCAN, Bishop Wei admits that the Letter’s revocation of past privileges and faculties accorded to the underground church (such as the right to ordain priests who lack proper seminary education) is a hardship. Yet, at the same time, he acknowledges its necessity. As I’ve noted elsewhere, this revocation might be the most significant act within the Letter, as it abolishes the legal – under Church law – basis for the actual existence of the underground. And, again, as noted elsewhere, Anthony Lam at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong is the best source of information on this topic!

Next, Bishop Wei announces that – in light of the Letter – he wishes to reconcile with five of his priests who rejected his authority last year on the basis of his decision to register local churches with the Catholic Patriotic Association “because, according to those priests, such actions are no different from joining the Catholic Patriotic Association and the “open” Church.”

This is a fundamental point, and one that deserves careful consideration. In effect, Bishop Wei acknowledges that registration with the government is quite different from becoming a part of the government (as embodied by the CPA). Unfortunately, most foreigners and many Chinese believe that the CPA, the “open” Church, and registration are one and the same. In fact, they are quite different, and Bishop Wei seems to be providing leadership on clearing this up (leadership that he began providing before the Letter). The UCAN report continues:

However, Bishop Wei’s pastoral asserts that registering churches with the local government conforms to what the Pope said: Catholics can dialogue with the authorities on aspects of Church life that fall within the civil sphere.

The prelate explained to UCA News that some Church premises in his diocese have been registered since the early 1980s, when religious activities revived in the mainland, but some Catholics perceive such action as joining the CPA and recognizing its “independent, autonomous and self-governing principle.”

Bishop Wei’s letter insists such decisions were based on consensus among his priests and in accordance with Catholic doctrines.

The remainder of Wei’s letter, at least as reported by UCAN, concerns pastoral matters. I will be interested to see whether Bishop Wei ultimately chooses to register himself with the government (again, different than joining the CPA). In either case, this is the first indication of how the underground might reconcile itself to the Letter’s direction, and deserves attention.


Finally, the election of Li Shan to be the next bishop of Beijing.

I should note, from the outset, that my knowledge of this event is largely derived from news reports. My sources in China’s Church tend to be in the south.

Anyway, to my eyes, the most interesting aspect of this event is the sense of deja vu that surrounds it. In April 1958, the Catholic Patriotic Association authorized the first two illicit ordinations of bishops in modern Chinese history (the reconciliation of one of these, Dong Guangqing, was described here [subscriber only]). This is a well-documented event, but what is not very well-known is the fact that, before being ordained, but after their elections, both of these bishops requested the apostolic mandate from the Pope. The Vatican was not prepared to recognize an elected bishop, particularly in light of the fact that the Papal internuncio and the European missionaries and hierarchy had been expelled from China by 1958 (not including the handful who were in custody), and a stubborn belief that China’s new government would fall.

This was understandable. Largely cut off from China, the Vatican could not understand the situation then confronting Chinese priests and bishops. But the mere fact that most of these same bishops and priests were eventually reconciled – and quickly, after China opened – suggests that a level of understanding developed.

Li Shan is different, and he is different because of the Letter. For the first time since 1951, the Vatican has essentially codified its intention to seek dialog. More than that, the Letter demonstrates a keen understanding of the complicated situation actually confronting Chinese priests and bishops. Also, it is important to note that the prior bishop of Beijing – the late Fu Tieshen – died while the letter was being drafted, and it is safe to assume that the Vatican drafted its text with some expectation of how the new bishop would be elected and ordained. In the past, the underground Church might very well ordain its own bishop; but the aforementioned revocation of privileges precludes the act.

There has been some speculation as to whether or not Li Shan has or will seek an apostolic mandate. Two quick points on this: first, due to the sensitivity of the situation, it is likely that he will deny seeking it, even if he does it; and second, if he does seek it, the request will go through Eugene Nugent, the Vatican’s representative in Hong Kong.

Finally, a few commentators and reporters have taken note of the fact that Li Shan was the only one of the possible candidates for bishop who was not educated abroad. This is quite important for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that the foreign-educated candidates for bishop split their votes (though they could not have beaten Li’s total). Factionalism in the Chinese Church is a topic for another day. For now, I’ll just note that most of the Chinese Church’s recent leadership candidates have received advanced educations abroad – a phenomenon which began in the early 90s. There are programs in Europe, the Philippines and – most notably – the Chinese Seminary Teachers & Formators Project run by Maryknoll in the United States, responsible for the advanced educations of more than 100 open Church priests, nuns, and laity. Last month I described this program and its influence in Slate.

1 comment

  1. Thanks for your continuing helpful coverage. I do fear that if there is an understanding reached with the Government there could be a “Donatist” type phenomena – it is very understandable and human.

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