The complexities of the Catholic Church in China

One thing I learned during my 2007 trip to China is that the situation of Catholics living there is very complex.  As a result, I have learned to rely on those much more familiar with the situation there and to respect their opinions.

One of those people is Belgian Missionhurst Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, who directs the Verbiest Institute at the Catholic University of Leuven and is one of the most authoritative experts on Catholicism in China. His text, which follows, illustrates the complexity of the situation.

Respect and Prayerful Support for Most Rev. Francis An Shuxin, Coadjutor Bishop of Baoding Diocese

Recently, there have been widely circulated and conflicting reports about the situation of Bishop An Shuxin, coadjutor bishop of the Baoding Diocese in Hebei province, China. Whether we agree or disagree with Bishop An Shuxin’s purported move to have recently accepted membership in the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, as a zealous pastor who has long witnessed his fidelity to the Holy See, Bishop An deserves not only our prayerful support, but complete respect for his pastoral judgments. I doubt whether those outside China who criticize Bishop An have ever met him. I know the bishop personally well and had several long conversations with him in recent years. I have learned to respect him and to understand the complexity of his situation. In any case, before making any public criticism one should be better informed. Did Bishop An really sign any document? And if he did, what was the content of the document and how is “membership” in this case understood? The interpretation of this word in China is often quite different from what is understood in Italy or in other countries outside of China. We all are far removed from the harsh realities under which many church leaders have lived in China for decades. At very least, we in the sister churches abroad must refrain from setting out our own nonnegotiable terms and conditions for their ministry and thereby increasing the heavy burdens they already bear.

Since the time of Pius XII in 1958 and more recently since the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, all Chinese Catholics know very well that being a member of the CCPA is “incompatible with Catholic faith.” They know this association seeks to separate the Chinese Catholic Church from the pope and, in effect, to establish a Catholic Church in China completely independent of the Holy See. This is why all of us in the sister churches around the world admire the courage of Catholics in China, some of whom, because of this incompatibility cited by the Holy Father, long ago opted to remain in “underground communities,” enduring all the opprobrium and suffering entailed. This is the great and historically meritorious contribution to the Chinese Church of the so-called “unofficial bishops” and the faithful under their jurisdiction. It is also the road long followed by Bishop An Shuxin.

At the same time, also since 1958, Catholics inside of China have long sought yet another way to assure the viability and future of their church. Some bishops opted to follow this third way and succeeded very well. They perfunctorily accepted to be members of the CCPA, not because they freely chose, but because they were compelled to do so. It was commonly understood that they paid mere lip-service to the association in order to carve out space for the church to not only re-emerge in open society, but to expand, grow and develop in every dimension — both as a community of faith and as an ecclesial institution. Without the courageous stand of the “unofficial church community” on one side and that of the “official church community” on the other, the church in China would not be what it is today; nor could it have offered such a sterling witness of meritorious sacrifice and fidelity to the universal church. When speaking about the church in China, one must always take into consideration this dual reality — thereby avoiding gross errors in judgment based on a biased and partial view.

In most cases, after being named bishop by the PRC government, many priests who were appointed “official bishops” succeeded in secretly securing validation and approval of their appointments from the pope prior to episcopal ordination. Among these so called “official bishops,” all per force members of the CCPA, were a few very highly respected and famous pastors known to us all. p It is unnecessary to rehearse their names here; we all remember “Bp X, Bp Y, Bp Z” … and we remember them with respect. They were loved by tens of thousands of Catholics, by bishops and by many priests and religious. We need only recall reports of the thousands of Catholic faithful who filled cathedrals and even rural graveyards to participate in each of their funerals! These pastors gave a magnificent witness and service to their church. It is also well known that even the recent popes and past and present officials of the Holy See, through these decades, admired the testimonies of both the “unofficial” and “official” communities in China. Of course, it is inconceivable that the Holy See would ever have encouraged these official bishops to freely become members of the CCPA. In the same way, despite questionable news reports of late, it is also inconceivable that the Holy See would have encouraged Bishop An Shuxin of Baoding to accept membership in the CCPA. It is unjust and a grave failure in charity to spread such accusations in the media, thereby causing serious harm to the Chinese Catholic Church, and, in effect, exacerbating its suffering and existing internal divisions.

Most all Chinese Catholics (and even government officials!) know in their hearts that these so called “official bishops” have remained faithful to the Holy See; as admonished by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, they strive to be good Chinese citizens, patriotically serving their country. Those outside of China, who truly have the cause of the Catholic Church in China at heart, need to walk in the shoes of their Chinese sisters and brothers in the faith, to listen with their hearts, to see with their eyes, to open their minds to understand from their perspective the reasons why these bishops took the path they did.

As we all respected and admired the well known “official” bishops who went before him, so, too, Bishop An Shuxin deserves our respect and admiration. Naturally, just as we never agreed that “Bps X, Y and Z” should be members of the CCPA, so too at this juncture we cannot agree in principle (if reports are true) that Bishop An has joined the CCPA as a condition of his being openly recognized by the PRC authorities. At the same time we question the wisdom of certain articles in the media quoting “Vatican sources” without further specifying them. Nonetheless, whoever would venture to speak publicly about the church in China must take into account the merits of both China church communities (“underground and “official”) and the harsh reality in which both sides have been forced to live for many, many years. Whoever professes to follow the instructions of Pope Benedict XVI — seeking to foster reconciliation and unity in the Chinese Catholic Church — must understand the extreme ambiguity in which this church lives. In solidarity and in union of prayer, we must all respect the judgments and ecclesial decisions of these courageous pastors in China who bear the heat of the day. Above all, we must refrain from imposing our own judgments on situations and people of whom we cannot have first-hand knowledge. “Judge not and you shall not be judged.” That is the spirit of Pope Benedict XVI’s letter. That letter and its compendium show us the way as he discusses such situations (cfr Par. 7): “… all this should be lived out in communion and in fraternal understanding, avoiding judgments and mutual condemnations …” and “… in order to evaluate the morality of an act it is necessary to devote particular care to establishing the real intentions of the person concerned, in addition to the objective shortcoming. Every case, then, will have to be pondered individually, taking account of the circumstances and guidelines which we all follow.”

Jeroom Heyndrickx cicm

November 6, 2009

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One Response to The complexities of the Catholic Church in China

  1. Francis Pimentel-Pinto says:

    Why not trust completely the Chinese Bishops to lead their communities the way they know so well? We Westerners should learn to respect Chinese civilization and their way of doing things. There is a Chinese way of going to Heaven!

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