Obstacles to breaking bread

2010-07-22Asia Times

BEIJING - It has been delayed and postponed, but will eventually start sometime soon - some say as early as August, while others argue it could be in autumn. The eighth congress of the controversial Catholic Patriotic Association of China, possibly the biggest stumbling block in the normalization of ties between the Holy See and Beijing, will open and usher in massive changes to the organization that has helped Catholics through difficult times from Mao Zedong to Hu Jintao.

The Vatican has strong objections to some of the practices of the association, which, according to some bishops, interferes with Catholics' religious activities. Yet it does not protest against the association in principle, since it is considered an organ for the civil administration of the non-religious activities of the church. The Holy See pleaded for postponement of the congress, arguing that it should open after the normalization of ties and the return of an Apostolic Nuncio to Beijing.

Beijing at first considered this, but then shelved the idea. Ties will not be normalized any time soon because of the present predicament with Taiwan (see Taiwan issue clouds Damascene moment ( Asia Times Online, June 10, 2010).

Furthermore, if the congress were to be delayed until next year, its workings could clash with the preparations for China's delicate 2012 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) congress, which will see President Hu Jintao retire as party chief and the promotion of a new leadership to guide China for the next decade.

The retirement of Liu Bainian, presently the vice president of the association and its "paramount leader", is expected to be the greatest shake-up in the forthcoming congress. Born in 1931, roughly of the same age as Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong, Liu is controversial among Catholics in China. Some regard him as a traitor as he compromised Catholic benefits to safeguard the interests of the CCP. Others believe he is almost a saint as for decades his attentive political maneuvering has helped Chinese Catholics survive many waves of religious crackdowns.

It is no mystery that most people in Rome hold the first view and have pushed for his removal for decades. His retirement could then be a major relief for his adversaries. Still, he has been campaigning for an early opening of the congress - which, he underscores, is not a religious activity - and for the promotion of his protege, Ma Yinglin, to the sensitive post of president of the association.

Ma's promotion would be irksome for Rome. He is one of a remaining handful of illegitimate bishops in China - that is, bishops who have been appointed by Beijing but have not been recognized by Rome. Beijing has asked many times for their legitimization, but Rome has responded that the legitimization of one bishop is a personal issue; it can't be treated in a wholesale fashion by legitimizing several people together. Moreover, whereas Rome might be open to legitimizing Ma, it would not like to see him as head of a civil - but still influential - organization for Chinese Catholics.

The association is also sensitive in that it brushes up against the Chinese conference of bishops, which is a religious organization. The two bodies, the association and the conference, are in theory distinct, but in the past there have been a few overlaps. For one, on some occasions even laymen and nuns have been invited to vote for a bishop, whereas only bishops should be called on to elect the president of the conference of bishops. The conference of bishops then is also particularly troublesome. In theory, illegitimate bishops like Ma should not attend it, but will they?

In addition, to represent the whole of China, bishops from Taiwan and Hong Kong should also join in. This is not realistic, given their existing separate organizations. For these reasons, some bishops outside of China believe that Chinese bishops simply should not attend the conference and should boycott the association's congress altogether. If this were to happen, it would be a major blow for the Patriotic Association and a source of future troubles between Beijing and Rome as well as among Chinese Catholics - separated once again along different faultlines.

With so many controversies on the table, Beijing has been treading lightly in these waters. In recent months, it has been trying to build a vast consensus among Chinese Catholics, and at least six underground bishops (appointed by Rome, but not recognized by Beijing) have been "blessed" by China and invited to join the official Patriotic Association - an invitation they have accepted.

This was to show that Beijing was willing to go out of its way to accommodate Rome's concerns, and it would recognize as Chinese bishops people who Rome selected without any interference from Beijing. In return, Beijing's message is that Rome should take into consideration China's own general concerns.

Here, Beijing fears that China's issues might clash with Rome's own dynamics. Concerns regarding China, which is still without official diplomatic ties, have been shared by different congregations in Rome. Besides the paramount cover of the state secretariat, headed by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, China was the turf of Propaganda Fide, which organizes the church's missionary activities and is headed by the Indian-born Cardinal Ivan Dias.

With Propaganda Fide dragged into an Italian scandal about real estate management, Dias might resign, and then there is the ongoing fire of sex scandals engulfing much of the church. In this climate, Rome can hardly find the concentration to focus on the extra-sensitive and divisive China dossier.

All of which means that the congress of the Patriotic Association could cause more damage to bilateral ties. (2010-07-22 Asia Times)


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