By Elise Harris
After the recent unauthorized ordination of bishops in China, which falls just ahead of a major meeting for Chinese Catholic representatives, the Vatican has issued a statement reaffirming their position on the matter.
“Some journalists have asked for the Holy See’s thoughts regarding both the recent episcopal ordinations in Chengdu and Xichang and the Ninth Assembly of Representatives of Chinese Catholics,” a Dec. 19 communique from Vatican spokesman Greg Burke read.
With the latter set to take place in just a few days, Burke stressed that the Holy See’s position on two events, “which involve aspects of doctrine and the discipline of the Church,” have been “noted for some time.”
In fact, the Vatican issued statement Nov. 7 stressing that rumored bishop ordinations taking place within the so-called “underground Church” in China had neither the authorization of the Holy See, nor had they been officially communicated.
“The Holy See has not authorized any ordination, nor has it been officially informed of such events. Should such episcopal ordinations have occurred, they would constitute a grave violation of canonical norms,” the communique read.
In his Dec. 19 statement, Burke noted the presence of an illegitimate bishop at the ordinations, stressing that his “canonical position is still being studied” following “his illegitimate ordination.”
The bishop’s presence “has created hardship for the parties concerned and turmoil among Chinese Catholics,” Burke said, adding that the Holy See “understands their pain.”
The ordinations happened shortly before the Ninth Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives, which is set to take place Dec. 26-30 in Beijing.
Considered the most authoritative gathering of the official, State-recognized Church in China, the meeting, according to its statutes, is called the “sovereign body” of the Church. It brings together not only bishops recognized by Vatican, but also those who are not recognized, and who are illegitimate or have even been excommunicated.
Representatives of China’s Patriotic Association (PA), both Catholics and atheists, will join the bishops, as well as a number of priests, nuns and lay people.
The last such meeting took place in 2010, just three years after Benedict XVI in a 2007 letter to Catholics in China said the Assembly, as well as the PA, were “incompatible with Catholic doctrine,” since in the assembly both legitimate and illegitimate bishops were treated equally by the PA, particularly regarding the Sacraments.
Some bishops recognized by the Holy See who refused to attend were eventually forced, many of them after having been kidnapped.
On the assembly set to take place later this month, Burke in his statement said the Holy See is waiting to pass judgement “based on proven facts.”
“In the meantime, she is certain that all Catholics in China wait with trepidation for positive signs, which help them to have confidence in the dialogue between civil authorities and the Holy See and to hope in a future of unity and harmony.”
Ever since the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, the Holy See has had a reduced diplomatic presence in Beijing, with the nunciature being moved to Taiwan in 1951.
China-Vatican relations have been cool ever since, but with some apparent thaws. After Benedict XVI’s letter to Catholics in China in 2007, a series of bishops’ appointments approved both by the Chinese government and the Holy See took place.
The Church in China, however, is still in a difficult situation. The government of the Chinese People’s Republic never recognized the Holy See’s authority to appoint bishops. Instead, it established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which is a sort of ecclesiastical hierarchy officially recognized by the Chinese authorities.
For this reason, Chinese bishops recognized by the Holy See entered a clandestine state, thus giving life to the so called “underground Church” that is not recognized by the government.
However, despite the hiccups that still exist, the Vatican has been working hard to come to an agreement with the Chinese government, particularly regarding the appointment of bishops.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, told nuncios gathered in Rome Sept. 16-18 that current talks with China are centered on bishop appointments, but as of now haven’t touched the possibility of establishing diplomatic ties.
If an agreement on bishop appointments were to be reached, it will likely be based on Parolin’s model implemented in Vietnam back in 1996, in which the Holy See proposes a set of three bishops to the Hanoi government, and Hanoi makes its choice.
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