Vatican condemns self-ordination of Chinese priests as illegal

The faithful attend the Angelus prayer led by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Aug. 14, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Max Rossi
The faithful attend the Angelus prayer led by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Aug. 14, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Max Rossi

The faithful attend the Angelus prayer led by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Aug. 14, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Max Rossi

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The Vatican has condemned the ordinations of priests in China’s underground Catholic Church as a “grave violation” of canon law.

In a strongly worded statement released Monday (Nov. 7), the Vatican sought to defuse ongoing tensions with China as negotiations continue on a broader agreement on bishop nominations.

“In recent weeks there has been a series of reports regarding some episcopal ordinations conferred without papal mandate,” said Greg Burke, head of the Vatican press office, said in a statement.

“The Holy See has not authorized any ordination nor has it been officially informed of such events,” the statement reads. “Should such episcopal ordinations have occurred, they would constitute a grave violation of canonical norms.”

The Vatican statement was issued following recent news regarding the Rev. Dong Guanhua, a Chinese priest who announced his ordination as bishop in September and offered to ordain others without the pope’s approval.

According to media reports, Dong, whose surname in Chinese custom comes first, dressed in bishop vestments, carried a pastoral staff, and conducted his “episcopal enthronement” Mass in a church in the Diocese of Zhengding, in Hebei province near Beijing.

At the time, Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo, the legitimate local bishop recognized by the Vatican, sent a statement to local priests announcing that Dong had been excommunicated because his episcopal ordination took place without the Holy See’s consent.

While the Vatican said Monday it had no confirmation of Dong’s decision, it stressed that any ordination without papal mandate was illegal.

“The Holy See hopes that such reports are baseless,” the statement reads. “However, it is reiterated that it is not licit to proceed with any episcopal ordination … even by appealing to particular personal beliefs.”

There are varying estimates about how many Catholics there are in China but the number is believed to be at least 9 million.

A large number prefer to practice their faith outside the control of the Communist Party’s Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and priests who reject party control risk severe punishment.

The pope has praised China and earlier this year he expressed his desire to visit the country one day.

(Josephine McKenna is RNS’ Vatican correspondent)

About the author

Josephine McKenna

Josephine McKenna has more than 30 years' experience in print, broadcast and interactive media. Based in Rome since 2007, she covered the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis and canonizations of their predecessors. Now she covers all things Vatican for RNS.


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  • I’ve read that the Vatican wants to sanction the Communist China’s false bishops, but the faithful Catholics in the underground Catholic Church are sticking with the underground true Catholic bishops. Some of the Communist Chinese fake bishops live with their women and children and say they are really puppets of the Communist state. The underground Catholic Church has suffered for years, with many of the true bishops having been imprisoned and even tortured over the years, because they want to stick to the true Catholic Church. Even worse, when the true Catholic bishops die, the Vatican does not allow or sanction any ordaining of any more true Catholic bishops for the underground. The underground Catholic Church members are therefore, justifiably frustrated and upset. Read this article to explain some of what’s going on…

  • It would seem the situation in China is rather unique among country’s with large Catholic populations, though 9 million in a country with China’s population is a relatively small number. In the event that contacts and communication between Rome and the Catholic Chinese are hampered by the Chinese government, or by some intransigence from Rome, surely Chinese Catholics know enough to recognize which prelates serve their interests best. If Rome does not want its canons violated, it ought to try to minister more effectively to its faithful children.

  • Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen said that Pope Francis’ agreement that the Chinese gov’t select future bishops would make the Church “totally subservient to an atheist government.” The bishops would be “puppets” of the Beijing regime. “I would prefer no bishops,” Cardinal Zen said.

  • The Vatican’s theology of Holy Orders is so messed up. The charisms associated with the ordained ministry are the gift of the Holy Spirt – not of Vatican bureaucrats.

  • I guess the church had no problem being subservient to facist governments in the 1930s to ensure the survival of the church. Of course in that pact they didn’t lose their internal power. This government seems determined to reign in all religions from the freedoms allowed by the previous leader.

  • I agree about the Chinese government’s persecution of religions.
    However, the Church was an ally of every fascist movement and government in the 1930s: Mussolini, Francisco Franco in Spain, António Salazar in Portugal, Engelbert Dollfuss in Austria, Jozef Tiso in Slovakia, the Croation Ustaše, Hungary’s Iron Cross Party, the Rexists in Belgium and Vichy France. Even in Lutheran Germany, Ludwig Kaas, a priest and close adviser to Vatican Secretary of State Pacelli, and Franz von Papen, a nobleman and Catholic monarchist, played key roles in getting the Enabling Act passed on March 23, 1933. This legislation granted Adolf Hitler dictatorial powers.

  • A little “shop talk”if I may: In true Vatican doublespeak the episcopal ordinations are condemned as a “grave violation of canon law” and therefore “illicit” but what the Vatican does not say but knows is that when consecration of men to the episcopacy is by a “valid minister in Apostolic Succession” it is in fact if not de jura, valid. While technically speaking this view of Holy Orders is not shared by the Eastern Orthodox Churches where the term of apostolic succession is viewed as valid only when those being ordained are in communion with the Church meaning the Orthodox Church nonetheless such a “technicality” is over looked by many Orthodox bishops. Reformed and some Anglicans view validity as determined by the “whole Church” as in The People of God who in giving consent to ordination “validates” ordination. Whether it is the “Underground Church” or the above ground one what the Vatican says is about as relevant as the tooth fairy is to density! The old days of the imperial church are numbered and are fast coming to a close.

  • I agree with you Edward. In China they must do what is necessary to make their churches functional. That doesn’t mean they want to defy the Vatican, it means they have to.

  • Thanks for the info. You make much more sense than the Vatican. (Sorry to offer such faint praise!)

  • The choice of the term “self ordination” is silly and inaccurate. Unless you are a delusional lunatic no one is “self ordained”. “Non approved” or “non canonical” is a more appropriate term.