China has unilaterally interrupted its dialogue with the Holy See, even as the two sides appeared to be moving closer to taking a step that could have led to a breakthrough toward the normalization of relations. 

It did so in pursuit of a policy, devised under Chairman Mao Zedong in 1957, to build a Catholic Church in China independent of the Holy See. 

This sudden breach of trust and lack of respect for its dialogue partner has left seasoned observers wondering whether Beijing is seriously interested in normalizing relations with the Holy See and, if so, how the dialogue might be restarted. 

Hampering dialogue 

The process of rupture began Nov. 20 when Chinese authorities, brushing aside the Vatican’s opposition, held the first ordination of a bishop without the pope’s approval since late 2006. 

They press-ganged eight state-recognized bishops, in communion with Rome, into ordaining Father Joseph Guo Jincai as bishop of Chengde, a small new diocese in Hebei province created by the Chinese authorities but not recognized by the Vatican. Guo Jincai had been deputy-secretary general of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), the body established by the Communists in 1957 to control the mainland Church. 

After the ordination the Vatican denounced this grave violation of freedom of religion and conscience in an unusually tough statement, and questioned the ordination’s validity. For the first time, too, it denounced the CCPA’s leadership which, under the influence of its vice-chairman, Anthony Liu Bainain, has acted in ways that “gravely damage the Church in China” and “hamper” the Sino-Vatican dialogue. 

The process of rupture climaxed in early December when Chinese authorities, again defying the Vatican, held the eighth National Assembly of Catholic Representatives in Beijing. The assembly is the highest author-ity of the state-sanctioned ‘open’ Church. 

It was convened to reaffirm the independence of the mainland Church from Rome and to elect the top officials of the CCPA and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC) — two state entities established to control the life of the Catholic Church. These bodies are incompatible with Catholic doctrine, Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2007 Letter to China’s Catholics

In March, the Vatican instructed China’s bishops not to participate in the assembly. Beijing, however, wanted all the bishops there, and used every means at its disposal to ensure their presence. Local officials reportedly risked losing their jobs if they failed to deliver their local bishop to the assembly. 

Some bishops, nevertheless, chose to resist. Bishop Peter Feng Xinmao of Hengshui, for example, said he wouldn’t attend, and 80 priests, nuns and laypeople surrounded his residence to protect him. Local government officials called in 100 police to get him and, seeing they were overpowered, the Catholics knelt down. The bishop blessed his flock before being physically taken away to Beijing. Many wept. 

Another courageous bishop, Joseph Li Liangui of Cangzhou, went into hiding to avoid the assembly. State officials threatened Church officers they would put him on the “wanted” list and hunt him down as a criminal if he didn’t surrender, but he managed to evade them, and now faces serious consequences. 

It should be noted that all the Catholic representatives who were invited, harassed, pressured, even coerced into attending the assembly belong to the government sanctioned “open” Church community, controlled by the CCPA. Known as the “Patriotic Church,” it has an estimated 5.7 million members. 

Xinhua, China’s official news agency, said in its English-language dispatch that 341 people attended the assembly: 64 bishops, 162 priests, 24 nuns and 91 laypeople. But its Chinese-language report only said 64 bishops had been invited. Reliable Catholic sources have since confirmed that 45 bishops actually attended. 


The assembly was held behind closed doors, at the Beijing Friendship Hotel. 

Liu Bainain chaired the opening session, during which emphasis was placed on the independence of the Chinese Church from foreign influence, and its achievements. 

Hailed by the authorities as an exercise in democracy and independence, the assembly’s reality was quite different. The electoral list, prepared behind the scenes in advance, provided only one candidate for each leadership post. Voting was done by show of hands, with photographers recording every round. Not surprisingly the results were almost unanimous, with no negative votes. The highest number of abstentions was three. 

The rubber-stamp assembly elected three illegitimate bishops to the key positions in the bishops’ conference. It elected Bishop Fang Xingyao, who is in communion with Rome, as chairman of the CCPA. 

Far from providing any hint of Beijing’s desire for rapprochement with the Vatican, the results of the assembly appeared to signal further entrenchment. In the assembly’s closing statement, Bishop Ma Yinglin claimed the new leadership would unite Chinese Catholics behind the principles of autonomy, self-management and democracy. 

These latest events raise serious questions about the future of the Church in China. They have also increased internal divisions and are a setback to reconciliation between the “open” and “underground” Catholic communities. 

Several years ago, a Vatican official compared the situation of the mainland Church then to that of “a bird in a cage.” Since then the Holy See has dialogued with Beijing in an effort to enlarge the cage and normalize relations. 

If the recent negative developments had happened 10 years ago, the blow would not have been as hard for Chinese Church and the Holy See as it is today, because it has taken place after several years of what appeared to be growing openness and communication between Beijing and Rome. 

The new year will reveal whether Beijing is willing to reengage in such a serious dialogue. 

Gerard O’Connell writes from Rome.

Catholics in China (sidebar)

◗ The clandestine Catholic community (“the Underground Church,” with as many as 10 million members) was not invited to the assembly, because it doesn’t recognize the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association or the CCBC, and refuses to have its life controlled by them. Because of this, it suffers many hardships and repression. Two of its bishops and several priests are currently in detention. 

◗ There are about 100 bishops in mainland China today, for a Catholic population estimated at more than 15 million members. All but a handful of the bishops are in communion with the pope. Beijing, however, only recognizes 64 of them, those that belong to the “open” Church.