Father Bernardo Cervellera, a longtime observer of Sino-Vatican affairs, is deeply troubled by recent moves made by China’s communist authorities.
"We are back in the 1950s,” said Fr. Cervellera, a missionary of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions and editor of institute’s influential Asia News website.
"Honestly, I would say that with these elections we are taken back to the time of Mao Zedong and the foundation of the Patriotic Association,” the state-authorized Catholic Church established by the communist ruler.
Fr. Cervellera has for many years been a sharp critic of the regime in Beijing and a cautionary voice on the Church’s relations with the regime. In a Dec. 9 interview with CNA he said recent developments do not offer much cause for optimism.
The troubles began Nov. 20 when communist authorities appointed Father Guo Jincai a bishop, in express defiance of Vatican wishes and without the Pope's approval. In a gesture that sparked further outrage from the Vatican, authorities forced at least eight bishops loyal to Rome to participate in the rogue ordination.
This week, communist officials again forced bishops loyal to Rome to take part in elections for the government-run Catholic Patriotic Association and Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church.
Neither institution is recognized by the Vatican.
While others see recent developments reflecting a more delicate political balancing act by the two sides, Father Cervellera believes many in the Church are being overly optimistic about the intentions of the communist government in Beijing.
Fr. Cervellera said Chinese officials are sending a clear message that the communist party — and not the Vatican — is in charge of the Chinese Church.
He said the recent elections to the Patriotic Association and the so-called Bishops' Conference were meant "to wound the Vatican" and set up obstacles to unity in the Church.
The elections installed a bishop ordained without papal approval to head the bishops’ conference. A bishop loyal to Rome was elected to head the Patriotic Association. Both bishops were the only candidates nominated to run for the posts.
Installing a legitimately ordained bishop to the presidency of an organization not approved by the Vatican is another show of force by communist officials. The move is intended to signal that Beijing, not Rome, is "master of the Church," he said.
Fr. Cervellera, who worked for a time as university professor in Beijing and is former head of the Vatican’s missionary news agency, Fides, serves as an unofficial counselor to the Vatican on Chinese affairs.
He believes that Vatican officials have been “perhaps too optimistic” in thinking that Pope Benedict XVI’s outreach to Chinese Catholics and government authorities would lead to new respect for the Church. In fact, he says, little has changed since the Pope’s historic 2007 open letter to Chinese Catholics.
In part, Fr. Cervellera believes, the government's provocative actions were motivated by the Chinese Patriotic Association, which feels threatened by any moves to strengthen ties with Rome. He said association members are keenly concerned to preserve power and thus their jobs and control of Church finances.
"The more the Vatican tries to have a dialogue with the government, the more the Patriotic Association thinks that it's coming to its end," he said.
He also believes the government sees control of the Church as a way to maintain power over a population dissatisfied with rising inflation and a growing disparity between rich and poor.
Then, there is the issue of communist ideology. "I think they really cannot understand what freedom of religion means, that there is something in the conscience, in the awareness of the person which doesn't belong to the party or the state, but belongs only to God," Fr. Cevellera said.
Catholics in China, he explained, have “freedom of worship, but not freedom of religion.” True freedom of religion would mean that the Church would have the power to govern itself without interference from government officials.
The situation now, he said, is “terrible.” Chinese officials have created "a problem with our communion from the sacramental point of view."
Chinese Catholics loyal to Rome have been put in a difficult position. They fear that the bishops not approved by Rome will from now on preside over or be present at all ordinations of new bishops. That would render these ordinations illegitimate from the Catholic point of view. The result would be a Church led by bishops who are fact bishops in name only.
In the meantime, both the official state-sanctioned Church and that which remains "underground," unwilling to subject itself to communist authority, continue to be united and, paradoxically "strengthened" by their persecution. There is no freedom for either, Fr. Cervellera said.
As for the future, he hopes that recent Popes’ initiatives to open the Church for China's nearly six million Catholic has not been in vain.
"My hope is that all the work done for the unity of the Church by John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the Church in China can continue,” he said.