Chinese Catholics on edge of schism

2011-07-21Asia Times

BEIJING - The latest choice is Joseph Huang Bingzhang, 43. On July 15, he was ordained as bishop of Shantou in the southern province of Guangdong, next to Hong Kong, without papal approval.

Pope Benedict XVI reacted the day after, saying he was deeply saddened. Without papal blessing, the appointment was illegitimate, and the new bishop and all bishops who took part in it willingly, under no duress, should be automatically excommunicated.

As some 140 new bishops are expected to be appointed over the next few years, and the bilateral mechanism between China and the Holy See for agreeing on the choice of new bishops is breaking down, then the possibility of an objectively schismatic Church of China is becoming quite real.

It would be a church theologically quite close to Rome but without the "pope's interference", much like the Anglican Church.

In England in the 16th century, Henry VIII split from Rome and his daughter Elizabeth I upheld her father's choice. They formed the Church of England for political reasons. They were trying to affirm independence against the claims of influence over England by Spain and the Habsburgs, who ruled half of Europe.

In that historical moment, the king, the ruler at the time, affirmed that his authority came from God, and thus he needed the support of the Church to prove this. The spread of the Reformation, which challenged the divine authority of the pope, lent a hand to Henry in guiding his people, then all Catholics, to follow his newly formed independent church, of which he was the religious head. Politics and religion were intertwined and for this reason a Christian betrayal in favor of the Muslim was not so unusual. Catholic France had reached out to the Suleiman and his successor against Spain, before Lepanto Venice had tried to play both hands, with Spain and the Turks.

The Holy See was supporting Spain also for very practical political reasons. In the 16th century, the Habsburgs were the greatest stronghold against the advance of the Grand Turk in the Mediterranean. Suleiman the Magnificent, a Muslim, reigned from 1520 to 1566, and at the height of his power, he threatened to invade Italy and Rome, and thus to destroy the spiritual and cultural center of Europe.

As England was striving for independence, the pope, by trying to rein in England, was thinking of preserving the independence of the West from a Turkish invasion. With the pope out of Rome and possibly in the hands of the Habsburgs, the world would be divided between them and the Turks. Lepanto, the battle where the Turkish thrust to Europe was stopped, took place in 1571. Henry had died in 1547, and Elizabeth passed away in 1603.

It was a grand game of survival for the West against the invading Turks. What is the grand game behind the appointment of bishops in China, which could develop into a schism?

Is the Vatican an instrument of the US-Western penetration - as it was, allied to Spain, almost 500 years ago - that would be ruinous to China? What is the strategy of the Holy See with regard to America? And what is the strategy of the US on religion vis-a-vis the Catholic Church? Some Chinese people are wondering about these questions. And some Americans are wondering, is China staging a new Turkish invasion to be stopped at Lepanto?

Many things could push both sides to picture grand strategies at work, yet there is at least one element missing in the historical comparison: Beijing, or the head of the Chinese Communist Party, doesn't wish to become the head of the Church of China. Then, in case of a real schism, who would become the almost almighty head of the possible Church of China?

If all Chinese Catholics, in fact, were to vouch that Rome had no political design over China, things would be entirely different and most likely they would not have gone this far.

The root of the present conflict is within the Catholic Church. Some Chinese Catholics do not want to surrender to Rome and want to belong to a "Chinican" Church. These people, for this reason, are considered traitors by other Chinese Catholics who want to basically kick them out of the Church. Both sides are covertly (since no Catholic can openly challenge the pope) at war with the 2007 letter from the pope that called for the unity of the Church and said the Chinese Church is one.

Then for different reasons, there are Catholics in Rome and in Beijing who do not want to respect the pope's letter.

Does the Communist Party really wish to have a Chinese archbishop of Baoding, or wherever, ruling over the some 12 million Chinese Catholics, less than 1% of the total Chinese population? Possibly not. The Chinese Communist Party is atheist by principle, and in that case, it would be running a church of Western origins! Why would it need that now? Unlike with Henry VIII, the CPC doesn't claim to derive its authority from God, but from a revolution it won and from the welfare it is granting to the people.

If the party were to head a religion, this would be totally new and far, far more complicated, vexing, and difficult to explain in China and abroad than appointing the next Dalai Lama, a practice that at least is in accordance with the past imperial tradition - and that is already troubling enough. Moreover, it would be totally unnecessary, as it involves a tiny minority, and the Party's power has nothing to do with any divine right.

Then, paradoxically, in theory, the pope and Chinese top leadership are on the same line - they both uphold the principle of the 2007 letter on stating the unity of Catholics, that there are not two churches in China and that China has a legitimate government.

However, principles are difficult to put into practice, especially since the Vatican is ignorant of the ways of the party, and the party reciprocates.

The reality is that some Chinese Catholics are really dancing on the edge of a schism that would be hard to mend. Chinese Catholics can't say, "We don't want the pope's interference": it is nonsense. Catholics are such because of the pope, since without him they would be Protestants.

These Chinese Catholics could say, "We want to split and to gain local power." But in reality, they can't say so because the common Catholic people would not follow them. So they can hope to drag out the situation in the hope that Rome will take the first step for the split, leaving many Chinese hurt and split deeply in their souls - should they be Chinese citizens loyal to a government that has improved their lives or loyal Catholics as their faith commands?

But in Rome, some also fail to see that the "schismatic" Chinese have a point. They served both the state and the Catholic faith for decades, and without them, the Church possibly would not have survived the Maoist times. Now they are demonized but don't want to be cast out in the future by a unified Chinese Catholic Church, and they would rather split the Church than be cast out of it. As writer Mikhail Bulgakov would have said, "Even if they were the devil, and most likely they are not the devil, they would be the devil for their own good reasons."

Then, perhaps, now more than ever, all should heed the spirit of the letter of the pope, refusing to divide between good and bad Catholics and recognizing the legitimacy of the Chinese government.  (2011-07-21 Asia Times)


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