After traveling to China in 2007, I came away having learned two important lessons: 1) Nothing is as it seems. 2) The more you learn, the more you realize what you do not know.
This does not apply just to China, but to the Chinese Catholic Church, which, on one level, is locked in a battle with the Chinese government: church autonomy vs. government control.
Reports coming from China might indicate that Chinese Catholic leaders are caving in to government officials. For instance, last December the Asian church news agency UCA News reported on the Congress of Catholic Representatives, which some church leaders were forced to attend. The Vatican was critical of the assembly on many levels, including that Vatican-approved bishops were among officials elected to the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China and the Catholic Patriotic Association, two bodies Pope Benedict XVI has said are not in line with church teaching.
Yet in that same 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics in which Pope Benedict criticized the two government-backed bodies, he said he recognized the difficult situation of bishops and priests under pressure from the government and added that the Holy See “leaves the decision to the individual bishop,” having consulted his priests, “to weigh … and to evaluate the possible consequences” of dealing with government pressures in each given situation.
In mid-July, the Vatican condemned the ordination of Father Joseph Huang Bingzhang as bishop of Shantou and said he automatically incurred excommunication. The Vatican said Father Huang “had been informed some time ago that he could not be approved by the Holy See as an episcopal candidate, inasmuch as the Diocese of Shantou already has a legitimate bishop.”
And today UCA News is reporting that the Shantou Diocese has three new priests. The report cites a source, unnamed, as saying that Father Huang might have struck a deal with a neighboring bishop to allow the seminarians to be ordained: Father Huang is still seen by the government as bishop of Shantou, yet he probably recognized the needs of the seminarians who had spent years studying to be priests, so he allowed them to be ordained by a Vatican-approved bishop.
Meanwhile, online speculation has considered the circumstances of Bishop Paul Pei Junmin of Liaoning, whom China says was suspended from his posts as vice president of the Chinese bishops’ conference and as head of the Liaoning branch of the patriotic association for refusing to participate in Father Huang’s episcopal ordination.
Bishop Pei, who has Vatican approval, is rumored to have resigned from his posts, and some speculate that the Chinese government announced his suspension to save face. Some reports have said he is under house arrest.
What exactly is going on remains unclear, and those who do know are reluctant to speak for fear of repercussions. What IS clear is that, as they navigate the minefields of church leadership in China, the young church leaders continue to need the prayers of Catholics around the world.