The state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association sparked intense controversy on June 23 by announcing its intent to ordain up to 40 bishops without the approval of the Pope.
Joseph Kung, an expert on the persecuted Church in China, told CNA that the move indicates the Chinese government does not have “an iota of sincerity and respect” that would allow “a trustworthy relationship, be it diplomatic or spiritual, with the Holy See.”
The state-backed organization– known as the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association – announced that it would appoint new bishops, since 40 out of the country's 97 diocese are without one.
Association spokesman Fr. Yang Yu said on June 23 that the bishops will be appointed in an “active and prudent” way based on what he called national conditions and pastoral and evangelizing work.
The recent development worsens the already tense relationship between China and the Vatican, which appeared to improve in early June when association leaders halted the planned ordination of a bishop.
Chinese government authorities were attempting to ordain 50 year-old Fr. Shen Guoan on June 9 as bishop of Hankou, despite having no approval from Pope Benedict and protests being raised by local Catholics.
Although the cancellation brought temporary relief to Church leaders, Thursday's news reignited criticism among Catholics toward the government for its disregard of the Pope's authority.
“The Chinese government and the Patriotic Association simply do not have the authority to call themselves Catholic while they knowingly and willfully break one of the most fundamental dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church,” Kung said.
Kung, president of the Cardinal Kung Foundation which advocates for persecuted Chinese Catholics, emphasized that Pope Benedict XVI “represents Christ on Earth.”
“Therefore, he is the only one, according to the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, who has the authority to appoint the bishop,” he said.
The backdrop to the new bishop ordinations is the continuing attempt by China’s communist regime to control all aspects of Chinese life, including the Catholic Church. The Chinese government forced local Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951 and created and continues to run the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which has not acknowledged the authority of the Pope.
It’s estimated there are some 6 million Catholics in China, although millions more are worshiping outside the official state-controlled Patriotic Association.
Diplomatic progress seemed to have been made in recent years, with some bishops receiving the approval of the Pope. But on Nov. 20, 2010 Chinese officials proceeded with the ordination of Fr. Joseph Guo Jincai as Bishop of Chendge, without the backing of Pope Benedict. The consecration of Bishop Jincai earned a sharp rebuke from the Vatican and was seen as a serious setback.
“The Vatican must let the Chinese government know clearly, without any slight doubt – and if necessary keep repeating it – that there are certain issues … that are not negotiable,” Kung said.
“Appointing bishops with the Pope's mandate is one of these,” he said, adding that the government's failure to recognize to this dogma will likely result in serious consequences.
Pope Benedict has carefully negotiated relations with China during his pontificate and has taken a pointed interest in keeping dialogue open with Chinese Catholics. It is uncertain, however, what the latest news will mean for the Vatican's future relationship with the country.