At a high-level Vatican meeting to discuss relations between the Vatican and Beijing, Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun—an outspoken advocate for freedom of worship—condemned the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Cardinal Zen condemned the Patriotic Association for its violent deeds which not only hinders the religious freedom in China, but also has become the greatest obstacle in re-establishing diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Beijing.
While Pope Benedict XVI did not attend this meeting, the Vatican announced that shortly he would write a letter addressing Catholics in China calling for a boycott against the Patriotic Association.
According to Asia News, a Vatican-affiliated news agency, it was likely that Pope Benedict would directly tackle the issue of how to deal with illicit ordinations by the state-sanctioned Catholic Church, which does not accept papal authority.
Pope Benedict is to call for the unity of followers of the state-sanctioned church and underground worshippers, eliminating altogether the influence of the Patriotic Association. In addition to the Pope's letter, the Vatican will establish a commission on China to more closely monitor the situation of the church in that country, providing a coordinated response to developments there.
When the Chinese communist regime formed the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in the 1950s, the organization officially severed ties with the Vatican, while an underground church loyal to the Papacy continued in spite of persecution.
After decades of harsh persecution endured by Catholics who maintained their Vatican affiliation—and stringent efforts by the communist regime to exclude Rome's influence over all areas of church life in the country—the CCP appeared to be easing up on its once-rigid stance.
Bishops Ordained without Vatican Approval
In 2005 several bishops were ordained, approved by both the Patriotic Association and the Vatican. But this mutual understanding broke down in 2006 with the illicit ordinations of three new bishops without Vatican consent—in Kunming on April 30, Anhui on May 3 and Xuzhou on November 30. Liu Bainian, Vice President of the Patriotic Association, and Ye Xiaowen, Director of China's Religious Affairs Bureau, were said to be in attendance at the latest ordination.
According to AsiaNews, the Patriotic Association coerced two bishops into presiding over the rites. The Association vowed to financially ruin the candidate and concelebrating bishops, and even went as far as threatening their families, if they did not submit to the ceremony. These bishops were also bribed in order to convince church members to accept the state-sanctioned appointment. In some cases, the Patriotic Association publicly proclaimed to be in agreement with the Vatican in such operations.
At least 45 of China's 97 official Church dioceses are either empty or are held by aging bishops. Thus, the Vatican believes Catholics in China face continuous violation of their religious freedom, as appointments made by the Patriotic Association to vacant dioceses clearly undermine the Church's authority.
Increasing Persecution of House Churches
The Patriotic Association's hard-line attitude can be seen in their efforts to step up the persecution of underground churches and to exercise tighter control over the state-sanctioned church. The state-sanctioned church has exposed numerous house churches, leading the police to arrest China's non-official Catholics. AsiaNews reports that at least 17 underground bishops have either disappeared, been arrested or are detained in isolation—20 priests in total have been arrested in this crackdown. The latest string of arrests took place on December 27 in Hebei Province. Of the 9 priests arrested, 5 remain incarcerated. Moreover, reports have surfaced that the relationship between the Vatican, the Patriotic Association and the Religious Bureau is on the verge of a breakdown, because the Patriotic Association and the Religious Bureau occupy properties that legally belong to the Catholic Church.
According to Chinese law, church properties claimed by the state during the Cultural Revolution were to be returned to the Catholic Church. However, officials from the Patriotic Association and the Religious Bureau currently control these properties. They have either sold them or rebuilt them as hotels, pocketing the profit.
According to a recent report by the Hong Kong Holy Spirit Study Center, these unlawfully seized properties occupied by the Patriotic Association and the Religious Bureau are valued at close to 130 billion yuan (approximately US$16.72 billion).
The Patriotic Association was established in 1957 to mediate between Communist ideology and the Catholic religion. However, the Patriotic Association has for years used its political muscle to restrain Catholics' lives through oppressive means.
In recent years, the Patriotic Association and the Religious Bureau have escalated their abuse against Catholics who remain loyal to the Vatican. Faced with continued discrimination, these underground churches tried to bypass the Patriotic Association and form a direct relationship with Rome. Reports estimate that these Chinese worshippers account for at least 85 percent of the total adherents in the country. With such a significant majority, the Vatican believes that the time has come to end the Patriotic Association.
The Holy See believes that Beijing sincerely wants to establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican, sensing that the Chinese authorities—especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—have already realized that their Patriotic Association has become a burden to the country, another bureaucratic relic that prevents the rest of the world from seeing the modern and progressive side of China. Officials in Rome presume that Beijing sincerely wants to establish a diplomatic relation with the Vatican before the 2008 Olympic Game to further improve China's international image.
While there is strong evidence that the Chinese foreign affairs system believes in improving diplomatic relations, the ideology departments have a different agenda. Many question how the Patriotic Association Vice President and the Religious Affairs Bureau Director, with virtually no backing from high-level officials, can continue to blatantly violate agreements between the Chinese communist regime and the Vatican.
After 20 years of reform, China has indeed become a more open society, but it is far from being a free country. Ideology-related departments still represent an important component of the state machine and they carry heavy influence. As organized religions such as Falun Gong and Xiang Gong still endure severe state repression, it is unlikely that the CCP would willingly allow a distant authority in Rome to manage the 13 million Catholics that belong to these unofficial underground churches.
The Vatican called upon its adherents to boycott the Patriotic Association as a way to constrain and marginalize the organization. At the meeting in Rome, one individual even called on the Holy See to use its influence to persuade Beijing to abolish the Patriotic Association.
As China weighs the desire for tight control against a more favorable international profile, one will see just how influential the Vatican can be.