c. 2007 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) Last weekend (Jan. 19-20), Pope Benedict XVI convened his top advisers to consider his options in dealing with China’s state-run Catholic church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), and its continued defiance in ordaining bishops without the pope’s approval.
The CPCA was formally excommunicated in 1957 because it cooperated with communism and was controlled by the state. Prior to 1949, when communism tightened its fist around China, Catholic missionaries were relatively free to aid the huge peasant population and convert a few souls along the way.
They were not overly successful. Today, China’s 2 million square miles are home to about 1.3 billion people, but only 16 million are Catholic. Of those, one-quarter belong to the state-sanctioned CPCA. The other 12 million belong to the underground Catholic Church, which reports to Rome. The underground church has a long history of suffering under communist rule, and it has a confusing relationship with the CPCA.
It all comes down to ordaining bishops, or to be more precise, who gets to do it.
Every so often, the CPCA selects a new bishop and ordains him as such using bishops who Rome agrees have the proper credentials. Two were ordained last May, and another in November. Officials reportedly kidnapped two bishops connected to Rome for the ordination of a 36-year-old priest as bishop of Xuzhou, the “City of Joy” located about a three-hour train ride northwest of Shanghai.
So what? Well, the thorny problem of selecting bishops includes all manner of historical wrinkles. The Vatican maintains only the pope can name bishops, but kings and potentates throughout history have tried _ and often succeeded _ in selecting bishops of their own choosing.
Today, the pope chooses bishops to serve in the Western (or Latin Rite) church from nominees who are culled, considered and forwarded to Rome by local nuncios, or ambassadors. With Eastern Rite Catholic churches, however, things are distinctly different. The nominees are elected by the synod of a given eparchy _ or Eastern Catholic diocese _ and the pope grants his assent.
But whether East or West, it is not exactly the pope’s direct appointment. In each, the pope is an approving authority, even when he chooses from the list of three nominees sent up to Rome.
How does this affect China? For starters, we do not know how the CPCA bishops were chosen. Were they chosen as functionaries of the government? A bishop is supposed to be free to govern his own diocese. How can he be so unfettered if he owes his position to secular rule? The recent debacle in Poland with bishops collaborating with the communist-era government underscores that concern.
But there is another problem. In China, government policy strictly limits births _ one child in urban areas, two in the countryside if the first one is a girl. As a result, abortion and even infanticide are common for female babies. Forced sterilizations enforce the policy even more. So proficient are the Chinese at having boys that they will have a surplus of 30 million males by 2020.
Now, a Catholic bishop freed from Beijing would not stand for that. Gender shopping is anathema to Catholic teaching and belief. But China has a huge population problem, and the government is scared silly over what the future holds.
So what would be the answer? Rome argues that the only independent bishop is the one named by the Vatican. China argues against the interference of the Vatican as a foreign government. One wonders if Benedict might decide to split the difference.
The Western church in China _ the one that’s three-quarters underground and growing _ is sufficiently distinct from the rest of Roman Catholicism that it could be a church “sui iuris,” that is, in law unto itself. Like the Eastern Rite churches, it would select its bishops by vote and let the See of Peter assent. That might assuage the fears of Beijing, yet let the Chinese Catholics freely practice their religion.
In order to make this happen, Benedict would have to stretch a document from the Second Vatican Council, “Unitas Redintegratio,” to create a situation in which the exploding Catholic Church in China could co-exist with national sovereignty.
This would be the operative paragraph: “To remove, then, all shadow of doubt, this holy Council solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, while remembering the necessary unity of the whole Church, have the power to govern themselves according to the disciplines proper to them, since these are better suited to the character of their faithful, and more for the good of their souls.”
(Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.)
KRE/PH END ZAGANO
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