On Dec. 9, two “Catholic Associations” of the Chinese government concluded a three-day meeting to select new leaders. The executive director of the New Jersey-based U.S. Catholic China Bureau said the controversial gathering was meant to test the political compliance of bishops in communion with Rome.

Fr. Michel Marcil, who heads the joint project of the Jesuits and Maryknoll orders, has worked with Chinese and other Asian Catholics for almost 50 years. When he spoke to CNA on Dec. 8, one day after returning from his most recent trip to China, he confirmed reports that police had seized many Vatican-approved bishops to compel their participation in the meetings.

The show of force reminded some observers of the late 1960s and early 70s, when authorities in the Communist country would arrest and imprison Catholics with almost complete impunity. However, Fr. Marcil pointed out that just as conditions have changed since then, so has the Chinese government's approach to the Church.

Neither of the bodies that chose leaders this week –the Catholic Patriotic Association, and the so-called Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China– have received recognition from the Holy See as corporate entities. But many bishops who cooperate with the agencies have also sought and achieved full communion with the Pope.

That situation is unprecedented and delicate for all parties– for the Holy See, the Chinese government, and especially the bishops themselves. While many of them attended the leadership elections under duress, Fr. Marcil explained that the dramatic situation should not be cast as an outright “crackdown” against the Church. Rather, it reflected complex calculations by both the bishops and the government.

The Chinese government, according to Fr. Marcil, is acutely aware that at least 100 bishops who belong to the Catholic Patriotic Association are also in full communion with Rome. The government's priority, he said, was not to punish those bishops for their loyalty to the Pope as such, but to remind them that they must comply with the political aims of the Association and the Communist Party as a whole.

Likewise, he explained, the bishops whom the government had seized and taken to the “Catholic Association” meetings had expected events to unfold in this way. In proportion to the government's serious yet restrained show of force, many of the bishops opted for a significant but not complete show of resistance – forcing the government's hand, to make a statement of their own.

Many of the bishops expected to be arrested and taken to the meetings– but not necessarily because they had actually intended to refuse all participation. Rather, in Fr. Marcil's estimation, “they were obliging the government to use coercion, and then to have it be known that there was coercion.”

According to Fr. Marcil, who had been surveying the situation firsthand in the days before the conference, the arrests essentially represented a kind of demonstration, both on the government's part, and from the clergy. Each side has long understood that the other is trying to keep a delicate balance.

Fr. Marcil explained some of the government's concerns, in the form of implicit questions he said they were putting to the bishops by calling the conference: “Where is your first allegiance? Are you more for the Pope, than me? Or are you more for your country, than for the Pope?”

“They want to really know where each of these bishops stands.” But the bishops' ambiguous combination of resistance and compliance makes it difficult for authorities to get a straight answer.

Government officials did know that media outlets around the world –except, crucially, in China– would be reporting their arrests of the bishops. Fr. Marcil said the government's internal control over news made this an acceptable risk, in terms of domestic policy.

The government wants to ensure the bishops' political loyalty, without provoking mass protests that would endanger its own interests. Likewise, the bishops want to signify their independence, without throwing it away over every possible disagreement with the government.

While these bishops don't generally fear for their safety, Fr. Marcil explained that they may end up under house arrest, or otherwise restricted, if they fail to show enough loyalty to the state. But while loyalty is the government's main concern, it's the “show” –often amounting to perfunctory lip service– that bishops in communion with Rome often end up providing.

The government meetings even have a nickname among some of those bishops, who call them “three hand meetings” – because, Fr. Marcil explained, all they are there to do is “shake hands, raise your hand, clap your hand.”

Fr. Marcil compared the long-running battle of wits between bishops and government officials to a “cat and mouse game,” but it may be more like a game of chess – between government authorities who don't want to give bishops either too much or too little freedom, and bishops who want to exercise their ministries in peace without becoming pawns of the state.

For now, the recent meetings' mixed election results indicate a stalemate. A bishop in communion with Rome will head the Catholic Patriotic Association, while another bishop who lacks papal approval will lead the country's unauthorized “Bishops' Conference.” Both were the only candidates for their posts.