Bishop Paul Lei Shiyin, holding crosier on right, poses with other clergymen after being illicitly ordained as bishop of Leshan, China, on June 29. CNS photo

The Catholic Church in China is undergoing one of its most troubled periods in the past 60 years as the country's communist authorities insist they alone can ordain bishops, and without the approval of the Holy See. 

Following optimism in recent years that dialogue could improve religious freedom in China, experts now say Chinese officials are reverting to a hard-line stance, with the goal of keeping all religious organizations, especially the Catholic Church, under strict government control. 

"We are seeing something like the 1950s all over again. The hard-liners are back in control," said Father Paul Mariani, a Jesuit and history professor at Santa Clara University in California and author of "Church Militant: Bishop Kung and Catholic Resistance in Communist Shanghai" (Harvard University Press, $39.95). 

"The state will permit religions," he said. "They won't destroy them, but they want them under their thumb."  

Vatican-Sino relations have become increasingly strained since last November, when the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association — the official state-run Church — began unilaterally ordaining bishops without consulting the Holy See. 

According to published reports and the Vatican, at least four bishops have been illicitly ordained, and civil authorities have even forced bishops and priests to attend and preside over the illicit episcopal ordinations. The unilateral ordinations followed years of dialogue and compromise in which the Holy See and the Chinese government conferred on episcopal appointments.

The Vatican response 

The Vatican has denounced the illicit ordinations, and in mid-July, it announced that the Father Joseph Huang Bingzhang was excommunicated for accepting the bishopric of the Diocese of Shantou. Bishops were forced to attend Father Huang's unsanctioned ordination even after expressing their unwillingness to cooperate. In a prepared statement, the Holy See called their resistance "meritorious before God." 

The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church blasted the Vatican's threats to excommunicate two other illicitly ordained bishops as "extremely unreasonable and rude," and indicated that the government-sanctioned church was planning to ordain up to 40 additional bishops without the pope's consent. 

"The majority of priests and believers will more resolutely choose the path of independently selecting and ordaining its bishops, and the government will continue to support and encourage such practice," said the official government statement, which also called on the Vatican to rescind the "so-called 'excommunications.'" 

Hong Kong's bishop emeritus, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, has compared the current situation to a war and has been skeptical of previous Vatican diplomatic efforts to engage China. 

"Cardinal Zen has questioned that path of compromise, and I think there's something to that because this path of compromise has ended up here," Father Mariani told Our Sunday Visitor. 

"The country's relations with the Vatican are at their lowest point in the last 50 years," said Jesuit Father Michel Marcil, executive director of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau

"The government is not willing to back down from a hard-line approach because at this point, they don't want to lose face and admit failure," Father Marcil said. "The government wants the only say on who is ordained a bishop in China."  

Nathan Faries, a Catholic convert and professor of English at the University of Dubuque in Iowa, said he sees no reason for "great concern or great hope" in the short term for Sino-Vatican relations, which he described as a "long and slow conversation."

"These have been a difficult past few months, but I don't think it marks a time of crisis for the Chinese Catholic believer," said Faries, author of "The Inscrutably Chinese Church" (Lexington Books, $75). 

Faries told OSV that there is good evidence that religious freedom is being violated in China but says it is not the whole story. 

"One thing I always note in conversations about the Church in China is that when you visit churches in the mainland, the Mass is perfectly familiar, and there is a sense of freedom that foreigners might not expect after reading all these reports about the Beijing-Vatican conflict," Faries said. 

Pressure on the Church 

Father Mariani said that he has visited Chinese cities where foreigners attending a Mass would find little differences with their home parishes. 

"But what a lot of foreigners don't see is that there is a lot of pressure on the priests in those churches behind the scenes," said Father Mariani, adding that the Chinese government is concerned with societal stability and sees a possible threat in its Catholic community. 

The official state church says it has 6 million Catholics, but various estimates push that number to 14 million, many of whom are believed to worship in the underground Church. 

"(The government) is afraid of any kind of dissent. ... They will tolerate Catholics who may go along to get along, but anyone who underscores the hard truths of the faith, their links to the pope, well, that might not be as welcome," Father Mariani said. 

Father Marcil said that Catholics in China have found ways to survive since the communists took power in 1949, especially during the brutal religious persecutions of the Cultural Revolution. 

"Government interference is something they're used to," he said. "If the Stations of the Cross have 14 stations, these people have not reached the end. They don't even know what station they are at right now." 

Father Mariani told OSV: "I think many Catholics in China are pretty feisty. They'll find a way to evangelize and to have their sacramental needs met. They still operate social service agencies." 

Authentic faithfulness 

Although the situation is not ideal, Faries noted that the officially registered "patriotic" churches in China are sites of authentic Catholic faithfulness in its clergy and laity. 

"Though there is no formal relationship with the Vatican, the Holy Father is mentioned and prayed for in the Mass," Faries said. 

"In the big cities, the churches are full of people, young and old, welcome to foreigners, sometimes even foreign clergy to assist in the Mass, and we saw evidence two years ago of some young charismatic Catholic movements in the legal Patriotic church," Faries said. 

Still, the Chinese government's recent power grabs and unilateral episcopal ordinations could spell long-term difficulties for the country's Catholic faithful, especially those who live within the dioceses governed by illicit bishops. 

"In places like Shantou, it will be interesting to see if the people reject the bishop or go along with it," Father Mariani said. "If they reject him, it means the communist party has lost, but not completely, because it will have caused some confusion." 

"But really, by the government continuing to do this ... the long-term effect of them going down this path could be very difficult for the Church."

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.