As China’s Bishops Die Off, Clash Looms With Vatican

As China’s Bishops Die Off, Clash Looms With Vatican
Pope and Communists Vie to Name Successors; Liu Jingshan’s Trials

By ANDREW BATSON in Yinchuan, China, and STACY MEICHTRY in Vatican City
Updated Jan. 31, 2007 12:01 a.m. ET

As Beijing and the Vatican escalate their battle for control of the Roman Catholic Church in China, people like Bishop Liu Jingshan are caught painfully in the middle.

The head of a diocese in the dusty plains of western China, the 93-year-old bishop is one of the church’s last living links with a pre-Communist China, when Catholics could freely profess their allegiance to the pope. Bishop Liu also serves in the compromised present-day world of Catholicism in this country, in a government-approved church which the Vatican and many Catholics view as illegitimate.

For more than two decades, Bishop Liu and many other Chinese Catholics have discreetly divided their loyalties between two masters, gently nudging both toward a hoped-for rapprochement. But as Bishop Liu’s generation ages, the bridge between Beijing and Rome is wearing thin, worsening tensions on both sides.

Each seat of authority claims the right to appoint Catholic bishops, and neither will talk to the other. So every time a Chinese bishop dies or retires, there is the potential for a conflict to erupt over his successor. The average age of a bishop in China is now 74, and at least 18 bishops are known to have died in the past two years.

More than two dozen of the 138 dioceses in China are now without their own bishops. Bishop Liu, already 18 years past the normal retirement age for a bishop, knows only too well his time to step down is coming.

“I know I am old. The priests who were my classmates are all gone,” he says.

Last year, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the official body which oversees local Catholics, appointed three bishops who had not been approved by the pope. That reversed years of quiet progress toward accommodation, which had included signals that the Vatican was willing to switch diplomatic recognition to China from rival Taiwan.

Anger over the consecrations has prompted the Vatican to re-evaluate its effort to restore ties with Beijing. Pope Benedict XVI earlier this month summoned religious leaders from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan — where the church is free of Chinese government influence — for a two-day meeting with his top foreign policy advisers. Pope Benedict now plans to issue a letter addressed to the estimated 12 million Catholics living in China, according to a Vatican statement. In two statements last year, the Vatican warned that any bishops appointed without papal approval could be excommunicated.

The struggle over who will lead Chinese Catholics is frequently opaque, revealed only in the nuanced signals that are a hallmark of both the Vatican and the Chinese Communist party. Still, the stakes for the church are enormous. China represents an unparalleled opportunity to increase the Catholic faith at a moment when its traditional stronghold of Europe is weakening. The conflicts within the Chinese church have left it lagging behind energetic Protestant sects in preaching to the Chinese.

“It would be a great sorrow to me if, as China develops more and more into one of the most important forces in the world, it does not know the grace and wonder of Christ and his church,” says Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington, D.C., who has frequently traveled to China as an unofficial envoy for Rome.

A Test
The tensions over the Catholic Church are also turning into a test of just how much freedom China’s government is willing to allow religious organizations in a materialist society whose people are increasingly hungry for spirituality. The difficulty is made more acute for Catholics by the central role of the pope and the religious bureaucracy he heads, which the Communist Party sees as a rival for political authority.

In the years following the 1949 revolution, Catholics were denounced as agents of an imperialist power. Foreign priests and missionaries were expelled, and many Chinese priests, including Bishop Liu, were imprisoned. Later, during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the church essentially vanished from public life, as mobs hounded believers and tore down many cathedrals.

Today’s China is somewhat more welcoming. The country officially recognizes five religions, including Catholicism, but still keeps tabs on their leaders through a government bureaucracy and a collection of five “patriotic” organizations. Catholics, in particular, have long been viewed with suspicion as possible political activists with loyalties to a foreign power in Rome.

“The Chinese government and the Chinese people are afraid of the church turning and playing the role that it did in Poland,” says Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, referring to the church’s influence in the uprising against Poland’s Communist rulers in the late 1980s that paved the way for free elections.

On the other side, many Catholics feel the Patriotic Association has traded the true faith for allegiance to the Communist Party.

“The official church in China is not obedient to the pope. They are obedient to the Chinese government. By definition they are not Roman Catholic,” says Joseph Kung, who runs the U.S.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation and is an advocate for China’s “underground” church — the semi-secret group of priests and bishops who don’t register with the patriotic association and are often harassed and imprisoned. In recent years, at least 17 underground bishops and numerous priests have disappeared, been arrested or detained in isolation, according to Asia News, a Vatican-affiliated news agency that monitors Church affairs in China. Some have died in prison.

Building Up Ties
Even so, traditionalists within the open church have spent decades quietly building up ties with the Vatican. While participating in an organization that has openly called for the Chinese church’s “independence” from the pope, they have privately sought his blessing and tried to increase exchanges between Chinese Catholics and those abroad.

“Even though I spent 19 years in prison, I do love my country. But do you think I only love my country? I also love my church,” says Bishop Liu.

Born in 1913 to a Catholic family in Inner Mongolia, he studied at a seminary there run by Belgian and Dutch missionaries. After being made a priest, he served as a local pastor and, later, the head of his old seminary.

Bishop Liu was just 38 years old when he was first imprisoned, in the chaos and antiforeign frenzy that followed the Communist revolution. Even after his sentence ended, in 1970, he was a suspect individual. He supported himself by laboring in the fields while the Cultural Revolution engulfed society. It was only after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 that religion was slowly allowed back into the open.

In the late 1970s, as China’s new leaders began easing government controls “the churches all opened. We could practice our religion,” recalls Bishop Liu. “We didn’t have any books or vestments, but we started to preach again.”

But the Communist Party’s opening to religion came with a stark choice: cooperate with the government, and be allowed to preach openly, or continue in hiding. Bishop Liu wanted to work in the open.

The government in Inner Mongolia, where Bishop Liu had served much of his sentence, still saw him as a political criminal. So, in 1983 he left and went to Yinchuan, capital of the western province of Ningxia. It was there that, at the age of 70, he truly began his life’s work.

“I still had something to do for the Lord: find a way to build up the church,” Bishop Liu says, holding forth in his room, next to Yinchuan’s church, which holds a desk, some chairs for visitors, a spartan cot and a toilet.

Yinchuan has a harsh, dry climate and a heavily Muslim population. Yet it proved fertile ground for the Catholic missionaries who first arrived in 1879. By 1950, Catholic records showed about 35,000 believers in Ningxia.

But when Bishop Liu — then just an ordinary priest — arrived in 1983, Catholicism had been driven almost completely from public life. His first task was to make contact with those believers who were left. He traveled around its many isolated mountain villages, reconnecting with Catholics who had gone into hiding. He also scrounged together land, money and material to rebuild Yinchuan’s crumbling cathedral.

The government was prepared to give the church and the land back to local Catholics. Bishop Liu still had to find the resources to rebuild the church and keep it running. In 1984, he cut a deal, giving up part of the church’s land to a government real-estate company in exchange for money to build a new church. The building, finished in 1987, still stands.

Building up the human base of the diocese proved just as challenging. A half-dozen nuns had survived, but they were even older than Bishop Liu. So he roamed around northwest China to recruit. Today, Bishop Liu has 11 priests by his side and 20 or so nuns and has also set up 14 churches outside Yinchuan.

His church is still struggling. “Our biggest difficulty here is that the congregation isn’t big enough,” says Bishop Liu. He estimates he looks after seven or eight thousand Catholics — many more than in 1983, but just a tiny fraction of the province’s roughly six million people.

In 1993, he was named bishop of Ningxia by the Patriotic Association. He squared that with his faith by seeking, and receiving, a blessing from Pope John Paul II. Having a recognized official status has been a help: Bishop Liu has used his government contacts to get some money sent from a seminary in wealthy Shanghai.

Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian priest who has known the bishop for more than 20 years, says Catholics critical of the official church should still respect his accomplishments. “He is in my view a great man, a courageous man,” says Father Heyndrickx. “These old priests and bishops have done a tremendous job to rebuild the church, and have been misunderstood for it.”

Search for a Successor
While Bishop Liu has found a way to practice in the open church without breaking ties with Rome, he must now find a successor who can do the same. Three years ago, a bishop in a neighboring province recommended a priest who has become his preferred candidate: Li Jing, a German-trained theologian who is now vice-rector at the government-supported National Seminary in Beijing. Father Li, 38, says he feels too young and inexperienced to take up the post, but will not contest the judgment of his elders in the church.

Father Li hasn’t been formally appointed yet. To become a bishop in China’s open church he must be elected by the diocese, in a meeting that usually includes the local priests and some nuns and prominent laypeople. They will then seek approval for the choice from the patriotic association.

In recent years, the process has often included some kind of informal approach to the pope, where the candidate will write to ask for his blessing, as Bishop Liu did. (Though direct communication is technically not permitted, word can be passed through Catholics in Hong Kong and Taiwan.) The Vatican has tried to bring the open church into the fold, noting in its recent statement that “almost all of the bishops and priests are in communion with the Supreme Pontiff.”

The Vatican has maintained hopes that such informal coordination could eventually serve as the basis of a more formal agreement that would end the conflict over the church’s status in China, of the sort it has reached with other Communist nations like Vietnam. Just last week, Vietnam’s prime minister met with Pope Benedict in the Vatican — a historic first that Vatican officials believe could eventually lead to a restoration of diplomatic ties.

Mixed Signals
In China, though, the Patriotic Association has been sending mixed signals. Of the five new Chinese bishops consecrated in the official church in 2006, two of them were consensus appointments, with both papal and government approval. However, the other three, who now head the dioceses of Kunming in the southwest and Anhui and Xuzhou in the east, did not receive papal approval.

The Vatican doesn’t publicly discuss the selection process, but church observers say the priests who didn’t receive the pope’s blessing were seen by some as too close to the government and unlikely to stand up for church interests.

One of the priests, Liu Xinhong, the new bishop of Anhui, had asked for the pope’s approval. Although he didn’t receive it, he took the post anyway. He acknowledged in an interview with state-run media that his decision caused the priests and nuns in his diocese much “internal turmoil.”

The Vatican called his appointment and others “a grave wound to the unity of the church.” A senior church official who has advised the pope on the issue said the consecrations have revived fears that China’s leadership will reverse some of the accommodation of recent years and try to consolidate the open church’s independence from Rome. That could mean a schism in the church, creating a rival version of the Catholic faith in the world’s most populous country.

Bishop Liu, whose few remaining wisps of hair float out from his skullcap, knows he may not have enough time to see his ultimate hope realized.

“We are with the pope,” he says. “We want to bring the churches together.”

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