Catholic Church in China: the good, the bad & the ugly

pic. JP - Nantang Church Beijing

There has been a MASSIVE debate these days among catholics interested in China. Especially after a new catholic bishop – Joseph Guo Jincai – was ordained last November the 20th, in Hebei province against the Pope’s will (Here is the video). He just obeyed the China church rules. He now risks excommunication.

On one side of this passionate debate, you have Father Jeroom Heyndricks (that I met last summer for La Vie) who both support underground catholics and official ones but he believes that we should not simply confront the Patriotic Association, in charge of all religious affairs. He sees himself as a resless man of dialogue. However, he is being harshly criticized by another strong voice… from Hong Kong. Cardinal Zen, a sharp thinker who will never accept any compromise with the Communist regime.

Here is the “good guy”, Cardinel Joseph Zen (photo by the Vatican):

Here is the “bad” guy, Father Jeroom Heyndricks, according to Cardinal Zen:

(photo Jordan Pouile 2010)

Here is the “ugly” guy according to Cardinal Zen. Mister Anthony Liu Bainian, in charge of the Catholic Patriotic Association. (With Jean Paul II’s picture in the background…in his office!)

 (photo Jordan Pouille)

Father Heyndricks, from Leuven, has been up for the dialogue between the Chinese government and the Vatican since the 80′s. He regularly gets invited by the Official Church to give lectures at the National Seminary in Beijing. But he also keeps in touch with underground catholics in several Chinese provinces, especially where Belgium missionnaries were active in there time.

So each has it own interpretation of the Pope’s letter to China (27th of May 2007) which is subtile enough to leave most of the Chinese catholics into the blur. The result is that outside Beijing, beyon the fights between the Party and the Holy See, local governements are given enormous power and autonomy to deal with these thorny and complicated issues of religion… to deal with millions of believers.

What does it mean? In some cities or villages, local officials are smooth and don’t really bother if you pray in an underground catholic church – which is often in someone’s living room- or the official one. They will also ask for bribes in order to leave you alone.

But other officials get mad if  some catholics go to a service led by underground priest who have not registered at the patriotic association. They believe it could cause serious threat to social stability. Outside Tianjin, a bishop is living under house arrest. Next to his house, surrounded by noisy roads and toxic industry, stands a small church backed with 2000 people every sunday morning. Most of them are catholic from generation to generation, with a strong resentment to the Party since the Cultural Revolution. They all know their beloved bishop should not be here but in the beautiful Saint Joseph Cathedral in downtown Tianjin.

And other officials outplay their role, appoint themselves at top religious positions just like in small state owned companies. See the scandal of the 100 seminarians from Hebei who led a pacific protest against their new leader, a non-catholic Party official, according to South China Morning Post newspaper. The only protest from catholics in the last ten years.

Facing that, underground catholics can get barely no help from the Vatican (which has NO diplomatic relation with China) and will becore much more frustrated to learn that their own underground bishops are rapidly being replaced by official ones, with the consent of the pope. Such a situation might lead to some  ultra-underground catholic churches, that you get to see more and more in the remote countryside of China… where some priests just do whatever they want with their community.

Underground catholics somewhere in Inner Mongolia (2010 – Jordan Pouille)

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral  between Cardinal Joseph Zen and Father Jeroom Heyndricks

“A funny sort of victory at Chengde

Published Date: December 6, 2010
By Cardinal Joseph Zen, Hong Kong

After the Chengde ordination, Father Jeroom Heyndrickx has spoken again. He pits himself against what he calls “the media,” which obviously include the Holy See and Cardinal Joseph Zen. These media, “who live in a safe haven outside China,” “condemn and recommend punishments” for those bishops and “put all the blame on them.”

To be fair to those “media,” I note that they blame first the government, just as Father Heyndrickx does. The difference is that, while the Holy See intends to carry out a detailed evaluation of what has happened, including consideration of the aspect of validity and the canonical position of the bishops involved, Father Heyndrickx calls what happened “a victory.”

For Father Heyndrickx, the concerns of the Holy See represent “the outer side of the Church in China, you can call it political, diplomatic, canonical whatever, but it is not the Church itself.” This means that Father Heyndrickx sees himself and his concerns as “the Church itself!”

Now let us give a good look at the facts. We all agree that there was heavy pressure from the government and that the bishops expressed their unwillingness to comply. But the fact is that they did participate in the illicit ordination. They did impose their hands, however grudgingly. They did concelebrate.

Father Heyndrickx uses different phrases to describe what eventually happened to the bishops, saying on the one hand that “they were forced into submission,” but then on the other hand, glosses over this fact by saying that they “were forced to witness the event.” The two expressions, in my opinion, have a very different meaning. I would like to ask Father Heyndrickx: “Would he consider it a victory of the old Eleazar (cf. 2 Macc 6) if, after his strong protest, he actually ate the meat offered to him?”

Father Heyndrickx spends many words to praise the Church in China for all the efforts it made to survive even the Cultural Revolution. He equally appreciates their actual efforts to save the faith and build the community. Nobody will disagree with him about this. But to continue to do all this, do they have to pay the price of contravening the discipline of the Church and of acting against the heartfelt encouragement of the Holy Father to remain faithful to the apostolic nature of the Church?

For Father Heyndrickx, whoever thinks that way is inviting the Church in China “to abandon their way of dialogue and engage in confrontation.”

In the recent past, I have spent many words telling Father Heyndrickx that there is no dialogue at all, “dignified” or otherwise, between our Church in China and the authorities and that it is ridiculous to call “a confrontation” any resistance to yield to the authorities’ illicit demands. The old Eleazar would be guilty of “confrontation,” along with St. John the Baptist when he presented his neck to the blade of the executioner.

When the Holy Father on Dec. 1 invited the people to pray that the Chinese bishops “may courageously bear witness to their faith,” was he instigating “confrontation”?

Father Heyndrick would leave the evaluation of the facts to the bishops, priests, and faithful in China. I think we should make a distinction between the bishops themselves and the priests with their faithful. For the bishops, how can you make them judges of themselves?

I would challenge, instead, Father Heyndrickx on how priests and faithful actually evaluate these facts. I know that the few priests in Chengde and their faithful have a great desire to have their own diocese and their own bishop. These priests and faithful are the real innocent victims in this incident.

I understand their actual desire that Father Guo Jincai be soon pardoned by the Holy See. But can Father Heyndrickx be so sure that the priests and faithful in the rest of China, whether in the underground or in the official community, are on his side? My information is that they are in the most sorrowful state of bewilderment in front of such a renewed serious act of damage to the communion in the Church.

Father Heyndrickx says that the goal of the bishops is to have “one Church in China, no more the ‘unofficial’ (underground) Church community, nor the ‘official’ (patriotic) Church community, but simply the Catholic Church in China.” Put that way, this is, of course, our common final goal, but this is not yet possible at present.

I would dare to read between the lines. What is said is actually the goal of Father Heyndrickx himself, but in the sense that the underground community should simply be absorbed into the official community in a unity of structure or a “merger.” This, I want to stress, is unacceptable because it would mean that the underground community would disappear and there would be, yes, one Church, but completely under the control of the government.

This, surely, is not according to what the Holy Father said in his Letter to the Church in China. The possible goal of reconciliation desired by the Holy Father at this moment, and to achieve which all efforts should be made, is the reconciliation of spirits and of hearts, followed by discreet gestures of fraternal love. The hasty attempt to achieve unity at the level of structure, instead, has caused so much tragic confusion and sorrowful division in the underground community.

I would hope that Father Heyndrickx becomes more aware of these disastrous consequences of his misguided interpretation of the Letter of the Pope.

This is tough !

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One Response to Catholic Church in China: the good, the bad & the ugly

  1. Adam Minter says:

    Jordan -

    The battle between Heyndrickx and Zen continues. I wrote about it on MY blog back in 2007, here: And here we are, almost 2011, and it’s still being written about.

    It strikes me that the underlying arguments haven’t much changed. Fr. Heyndrickx believes that dialogue and accommodation is necessary to, above all, preserve the Church’s considerable gains over the last three decades. And Cardinal Zen seems to believe that some of those gains can be sacrificed in order to achieve a martyrdom that will prove edifying to Catholics outside of China who don’t have the same martyr-ing opportunities. There are times, I must admit, that Cardinal Zen reminds me of American evangelicals who encourage Chinese Protestants to confront their government – while those same evangelicals sit comfortably in their middle-class homes in the US and pray. Likewise, Cardinal Zen, who, while comfortably appointed in Hong Kong, never hesitates to encourage Chinese Catholics to martyr themselves.

    As for the bishops who participated in the illicit ordinations – some were abducted and, yes, chose to participate. But what if they had not? What price would have been paid, then? Would respective dioceses have lost funding? Would social welfare programs that help the poor, and have been established with considerable cooperation from local governments have been shut down? Would the number of masses allowed in certain churches been curtailed, thus limiting the sacraments? In all seriousness, what price would have been paid by not participating?

    No doubt, the battle between Zen and Heyndrickx has become personal over the years. But I think it’s worth questioning the reasonableness of Cardinal Zen’s exhortations. The man has a role, and he must speak loudly because of his place in Hong Kong, but he does nobody any favors by encouraging martyrdom when he himself makes no such sacrifice.

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