Vatican vs. China or the Excommunication Blues

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 7/19/2011 01:28:00 AM
Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:10)

Aside from the increasingly tenuous connection between today's rather bourgeois "Chinese Communist Party" and Marxist-Leninist thought, two other relationships that give budding Sinologists pause are those (1) between Chairman Mao and his successors and (2) between nominal godlessness and religious tolerance. Both uncertainties have an important bearing on today's feature. Strict-form Marxist-Leninist doctrine would of course disavow the "opiate of the masses." While it's true that the modern CCP allows for religious freedoms, albeit on the margin, it is still keen on maintaining tabs on nearly all aspects of political life. So, do the key concessions of "market authoritarianism" of greater economic freedom also hold for (quasi-)religious diversity? Well, not quite.

To be sure, the Chinese constitution has some pretty nifty passages alluding to religious freedom, particularly this one:
Article 36. Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.
The very careful wording of this article is not by accident. First, religious freedom is couched in a negative sense of not being forced to adopt a state-sanctioned religion. Second, "normal religious activities" allows much leeway in determining what is normal (e.g., performing religious ceremonies in venues with official sanction) and what is not (e.g., protest movements based on religious affiliation). Third, ditto for "disrupt public order" which often translates in practice to any criticism of the ruling party. Fourth, religious bodies not being subject to "foreign domination" is an obvious reference to disdain for external entities exerting influence over religious practice in China.

While the trials and tribulations of the politically active Dalai Lama and Falun Gong have been news fodder for years and years, those of the Roman Catholic Church often get less attention from Western journalists for obvious reasons. Not only are its mores often in the crosshairs of left-leaning media, but it also is not viewed as a champion for the persecuted and oppressed given its still-formidable standing in the West. This being the IPE Zone, however, there are indeed international politics involved here. When it comes to Roman Catholicism, an important point of dispute is the sovereign status of the Vatican. With 1.3 billion customers or souls depending on your point of view, China is an obvious growth market for businesspersons and religious figures alike. Hence Pope Benedict XVI's desire to establish diplomatic relations with China.

Yet, it is over matters of religious freedom that the Holy See and the Middle Kingdom beg to differ. While the list of countries which still recognize Taiwan as the "real China" is dwindling for commercial and instrumental (the PRC is known for handling countries wads of cash for diplomatic recognition) reasons, the Vatican remains one of the holdouts. Since 1951, it has had diplomatic relations with the ROC, not the PRC. In perhaps less divinely inspired acts, the PRC has famously sought to install a successor to the Dalai Lama, while continually choosing bishops instead of the Pope. This sort of meddling in heavenly matters has not gone down too well with the Vatican which is doubly handicapped by being "foreign" and a legitimate diplomatic entity besides.

And so it is that we have another interstate fracas involving the ordination of a bishop by Chinese authorities, Joseph Huang Bingzhang, he of "The Fonz" hairdo in the picture above. Once the Vatican got wind of this event, it promptly excommunicated the fake bishop, reprimanded Chinese authorities, and praised the holdouts. (I don't think the hairdo helped.) From the Catholic News Service:
The Vatican said a Chinese bishop ordained illegitimately in mid-July has been automatically excommunicated and lacks the authority to govern his diocese. At the same time, the Vatican praised bishops loyal to Rome who resisted participation in the ordination ceremony before being forced by authorities to do so. "The Holy Father, having learned of these events, once again deplores the manner in which the church in China is being treated and hopes that the present difficulties can be overcome as soon as possible," a Vatican statement said July 16.

The Vatican was reacting to the ordination of Father Joseph Huang Bingzhang July 14 at St. Joseph's Cathedral in Shantou, in southern China's Guangdong province. Bishop Johan Fang Xingyao of Linyin, president of the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, was reportedly the main celebrant; he was one of eight Vatican-approved bishops at the ordination.

It was the second ordination of a Chinese bishop without papal mandate in the last month. The Vatican has expressed deepening concern and emphasized that willing participants in such ordinations face severe penalties under church law, including automatic excommunication for the ordained bishop and the consecrating bishops.

In the latest case, the Vatican said, Father Huang "had been informed some time ago that he could not be approved by the Holy See as an episcopal candidate, inasmuch as the Diocese of Shantou already has a legitimate bishop." The Vatican statement said officials in Rome had learned that some Chinese bishops, when contacted by civil authorities, were unwilling to participate in the ordination and had offered "various forms of resistance" before being obliged to take part.

"With regard to this resistance, it should be noted that it is meritorious before God and calls for appreciation on the part of the whole church. Equal appreciation is also due to those priests, consecrated persons and members of the faithful who have defended their pastors, accompanying them by their prayers at this difficult time and sharing in their deep suffering," the Vatican said.

The Asian church news agency UCA News reported that some bishops were accompanied to the ordination by government officials. Church sources said many of the diocesan priests went into hiding days before the ordination, but that some were found by government officials and had to attend to the ceremony.

The Vatican sees the right of the pope to appoint bishops as fundamental to church unity and as an essential element of religious freedom. China's civil authorities consider it a foreign interference. "The Holy See reaffirms the right of Chinese Catholics to be able to act freely, following their consciences and remaining faithful to the successor of Peter and in communion with the universal church," the Vatican statement said.
If accurate, it is indeed puzzling why Chinese authorities would force Catholic priests to participate in these sham ordinations. Aside from being questionable affronts to notions of religious freedom enshrined in the Chinese constitution, it also forces citizens to affirm loyalties to state or religion that should not be mutually exclusive in theory. In the past, the CCP and the Vatican have worked more on making mutually acceptable choices for bishops, so it is indeed odd as to why the Chinese authorities would force the issue at this point in time when they are attempting to create a present a more reasonable public image to the rest of the world.

Maoist doctrine circa the Cultural Revolution championed the "Death of God." Despite the passage of time and Chairman Mao having been branded 70% right, 30% wrong by his successors, you still have to wonder whether religious intolerance is part of the seventy or thirty percent in this context. I do think the Vatican's status as a state does complicate matters such as bishop ordinations, as does its recognition of Taiwan as the "real China" which isn't going to go away soon by the looks of it.