.- An expert on Chinese Christianity says the country's religious authorities are threatening the Catholic Church's basic identity by defying a series of excommunications and planning more illicit ordinations.
“All this is the independent, prideful nationalism of China, which many Chinese people can easily fall into – even Catholic bishops, I suppose,” said Dr. Nathan Faries, author of “The 'Inscrutably Chinese' Church” and a professor of English at the University of Dubuque.
China's State Administration for Religious Affairs rebuked the Vatican on July 25, calling the “so-called excommunication” of two unapproved bishops “unreasonable and rude.” A bureau spokesperson told the Vatican to withdraw the penalties, saying Chinese Catholics would travel “the path of ‘independent, autonomous and self-governing’ Church principle and ‘self-election and self-ordination’ of bishops.”
“I hear a lot of the Communist Party, a lot of the State Administration for Religious Affairs in those words, and not a lot of faithful Catholicism,” Faries told CNA recently. “When you take this to the logical conclusion, it ceases to be Catholicism.”
The state agency issued its comments three days after China's state-backed Catholic Patriotic Association announced plans to ordain seven more bishops without papal approval – adding to the three ordinations that have taken place without the papal mandate since November 2010.
Faries, a convert from Protestantism to Catholicism, is deeply concerned about the breakdown in relations between Beijing and the Holy See after a period of improvement. His book on Chinese Christianity came about through his experience traveling, teaching, and living in the country, where he found many “very faithful clergy” in both underground and state-approved settings.
“I believe there is a lot of solid, faithful Catholicism in the Chinese Church,” Faries said. “I hope it is the norm, even at the level of these bishops who seem to be acting directly against Vatican orders. I begin to doubt their obedience and loyalty at some point, but I would hope, and have to believe, that the numbers of 'opportunists' in the Chinese hierarchy are relatively small.”
Faries doesn't excuse the actions of the bishops who participated in the forbidden ordinations. “Unambiguously, the Church is right,” he noted. “The Vatican needs to lay down its rules, and needs to control what goes on.”
But Faries also stressed the importance of understanding the difficult position of officially-registered Chinese clergy, whose motivations may be quite complex. He doesn't see the ordinations as a simple case of “Communists saying what to do, and Catholics have to go along with it out of fear of jail.”
“They might go to the ordination of their free will, trying to be the middleman between government wishes and the Vatican. They hope in the long run, all this works out okay.”
Most of the official clergy, he thinks, deserve “the benefit of the doubt.” But he acknowledged that “people trying to do good things can do very wrong things.”
“I think Catholic clergy are usually people of good will, trying to do what's best for the Church and for their people in China – and walking a line of defiance that is dangerous, but that they hope will come through, so they won't be excommunicated and out of the Church.”
In some ways, Faries observed, the situation may be “similar to a lot of Catholic dissent around the world,” in situations where “people want to be Catholic, but they also have a kind of 'independent' spirit.”
Some of the penalized Chinese clergy – like other Catholics who believe that the Church may eventually reverse its position on fundamental moral issues – may be “hoping is that in the future the Church is going to change in their direction, and they're going to be able to outlast the current situation” in which they face excommunication for their actions.
They may also be looking back to the large number of state-recognized bishops who were accepted into communion with the Holy See during the 1970s and 80s – and assuming that a penalty of excommunication in 2011 might be similarly resolved in the future.
“If the Vatican sometimes does give those kind of mixed messages, that they'll bring these non-approved ordinations around into becoming approved, then that can give a message to the Chinese clergy that in the long run we're going to be approved, it's going to be okay, and this is what's best for the Church.”
“That seems to be the more complex situation that is going on, on the ground, that doesn't always come out in our Western consciousness.”
The situation also brings up some of the most acute tensions between faith and national identity, for individuals and the Chinese Church as a whole.
“Chinese nationalism is as strong as, or stronger than, our U.S. nationalism,” Faries observed. “That can be a danger for any Christian. They might feel that they can be safely independent in some ways, have independent opinions – and can, perhaps unintentionally and temporarily, buck the Vatican, and have confidence that it's going to be okay.”
Some of that confidence might come from recalling that “it's been okay in the past” to be illicitly ordained, and later regularized in accordance with Rome's more merciful previous approach.
Other may be similarly confident simply because they believe “China's 'just too important,' and supposedly the Vatican eventually will come around to helping their Church in the way they think it should.” It's a kind of independence Faries says “can be destructive or dangerous to Catholicism.”
Still, he remains hopeful that Chinese Catholics' strong sense of cultural and national identity can benefit the universal Church in the long run.
“Once it's blended back in with some sort of relationship with the Vatican, as in the late 70s and 80s,” he said, “you perhaps have a healthy mix of national, Catholic and Christian identity, that can do interesting and important things theologically and for the nation.”
“When the Holy Father speaks to China,” he pointed out, “he seems so excited about what that group of group of people can bring to the faith.”
Faries notes that many people are coming to faith quite sincerely in the official churches, while the communist government has shifted away from the Marxist notion that religion will someday die out. But he sees little indication of any drastic change, even if Beijing and the Vatican resolve their current problems.
“There's a lot of hope, for some people – for the Catholics, that they might get their 'Emperor Constantine' there in China, that would change things around,” he recalled.
“I really feel like it's a slower thing than that.”