Beijing’s Bishop – Final Thoughts (for now)

As of Monday morning, a google search for articles on the ordination of Li Shan brings up more than 200 entries. Not bad for a religion story – in China or elsewhere. In general, I found the coverage to be a vast improvement on past coverage of Chinese Catholic events which – incorrectly – framed them as conflicts between a (implicitly false) State-run-Church, and a loyal-to-Rome underground Church; or, equally incorrect, as a conflict between atheism and theism; or, finally, as a prelude or setback to diplomacy between the Vatican and Beijing. To be sure, all of these factors come into play whenever China and its current and future bishops interact, but none of them are the primary issue. Instead, the primary question, from the standpoint of the Chinese government, is and has been whether or not a Vatican-approved bishop can be loyal to China – and vice-versa.The historical roots of the identity/loyalty question date back to the Ming Dynasty and some of the earliest interactions between Jesuit missionaries and the imperial court. To a remarkable degree, the same arguments continued during the latter half of the twentieth century, driven by the Catholic Church’s close relationship to the colonial powers whom the Chinese communists expelled in the late 1940s (I don’t have the space or time to discuss the roots of this conflict here, but I summarize it in my profile of Shanghai’s bishop Jin Luxian in the July/August 2007 issue of the Atlantic [subscriber only]).The contemporary need to address this question has been understood by the Vatican dating back to the early 1980s, at least. Pope John Paul II, who – as a result of his experiences as a bishop in communist Poland – had a keen understanding and empathy for the challenges faced by China’s bishops, addressed this issue directly and indirectly throughout his papacy. For example, in a letter to Cardinal Jozef Tomko that was read to a mass in Taipei on September 25, 1994, the late Pope wrote:

There can be no opposition or incompatibility between being at one and the same time truly Catholic and authentically Chinese.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think that there is any other country in the world where the conflict between national identity and religious identity has such a powerful influence on religious freedom.

In either case, in following this weekend’s coverage of the Beijing ordination, I was struck by the lack of comment on why the Vatican was so late and discrete in announcing the Papal mandate for Li Shan. In general terms, the reasoning was quite simple: the Vatican obviously had no interest in stealing the spotlight from the government-supervised ordination ceremony. This was, as I’ve noted elsewhere, a lesson learned: in 2005 the Vatican and others angered China’s religious authorities by publicly trumpeting the Vatican’s role in the ordination of Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Xing Wenzhi in Shanghai. Right or wrong, the means by which the Vatican’s approval was disseminated was certainly impolitic, and arguably contributed to the misunderstandings and ill feelings that led to the 2006 illicit ordinations in Kunming, Wuhu, and Xuzhou.

Since then, the Vatican has been careful not to surprise or overshadow Chinese religious authorities and their assumed perogatives. Most notably, religious authorities in Beijing were provided with an advance copy of the Pope’s June 30th letter to China’s Catholics (characterized as a face-saving courtesy by some). More recently, the Vatican made little effort to disseminate the news that Guiyang’s new bishop received the Pope’s approval. And finally, we have the example of the Vatican issuing an official pronouncement of the Pope’s approval for Li Shan after the ordination.

As has been noted elsewhere, repeatedly, Li Shan has made no public pronouncement of his relationship to the Vatican – despite the fact that the Pope’s June 30 letter requests that Chinese bishops make their status known. Significantly, the Vatican has made no statement or signal indicating displeasure with Li on this point. At the same time, Beijing’s religious authorities have shown an unprecedented level of restraint and understanding when confronted – by foreign reporters, no less! – on reports that Li Shan had received Vatican approval. The New York Times quotes Anthony Liu Bainian, Vice Chair of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association as saying:

“The Vatican has agreed with the results of our election of bishops before, and we thought those were moves in a good direction. How they see Li Shan is their business, but it is our hope they continue walking a good direction.”

That may seem small praise to those unfamiliar with the history of Vatican-Beijing disputes, but it is unambiguous progress to those long involved in those disputes – especially compared to the angry 2005 denials that Shanghai’s Xing received Vatican approval. Slowly, the two sides seem to be finding a medium. Anthony S.K. Lam, a distinguished researcher at Hong Kong’s Holy Spirit Study Centre, and one of the world’s great experts on Chinese Catholics, addresses this evoloving medium in a recent commentary on the Pope’s June 30 letter to China’s Catholics. Though published in advance of the ordination, it was written while the question of the ordination was still in play:

For the last few years, the Chinese government always repeats the two conditions for normalization of Sino-Vatican relations. First, the Vatican should cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and the Vatican should not interfere in China’s internal affairs.

If we rephrase these two conditions, we may elaborate the two in this way: First, China is a complete and indivisible nation. Any attempt at separating actions, claiming that one side has independent authority outside the central government, is totally unacceptable. Secondly, as a complete and unique government, outside interference is not tolerated.

Interestingly enough, the essence of these two conditions is also present in the Holy Father’s letter. The Holy Father stresses that: first, the Catholic Church is a complete and indivisible Church. Any attempt at creating actions of separation, claiming that one part has independent authority outside the whole Church, is completely unacceptable. Secondly, as a complete and unique Church, outside interference is not tolerated.

Therefore, we can say that the Holy Father treasures the principle of these two conditions of the Chinese Government. So, as a consequence, he asks the Chinese Government, based on the same principles, to respect the Church.

Clearly, relations have improved between the Vatican and Beijing, and the two seem to be reaching – once again – an informal consensus on how bishops should be named. However, the ultimate resolution – if there is one – is anybody’s guess. The fact that so much is now happening discretely is both positive, but also a cause for concern. Realistically, I don’t think either party is interested in a long-term, informal solution on bishops that isn’t public and openly acknowledged.

In the end, I think the only certainty is that – whatever the solution – China’s Church will not look like the Western Catholic Church. At a minimum, the Chinese state will have some role in bishop selection (as it does in Vietnam), and the Vatican will accept that. On a deeper level, though, the Church will have to deal with the fact that China’s Catholics – both open and underground – have been officially separated from Rome for over half-a-century. The resulting independence – whether desired or not – has engendered a distinct and independent Catholicism that requires adjusting in Rome, as well as in Beijing and other Chinese dioceses.


  1. “The resulting independence has engendered a distinct and independent Catholicism.”
    Is the Catholic Church in China still pre-VC II? The liturgy is still according to the old (now extraordinary) use?
    Thank you.

  2. Domenico –

    An interesting question.

    The novus ordo has been in use since 1989, though it didn’t receive government approval until 1992, and wide acceptance until 1993 or 1994. A Chinese-language missal – based upon the 1970 Roman missal – was published in the early 1990s (with the approval of the Holy See), and – with revisions – today it is used almost universally in China’s churches.

    Way back in July I posted a brief history of how and why the norvus ordo was adopted so late. It includes pictures of the first one (in China). You can find the post here:

    Thanks for your visit and comments!

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