The Pope or the Party? Bad News from China

The always interesting Sandro Magister presents us with a piece on the Church in China.

I am sure you will be shocked that the "openness" of the Olympic facade might not have been entirely genuine.

Let’s have a look with my emphases and comments.

Bad News from China. A Rift Has Opened in Beijing

Between obedience to the pope and to the communist party, some bishops are choosing the latter. The most stunning about-face has taken place in the capital. A secret letter from Cardinal Bertone. The alarm of Cardinal Zen

by Sandro Magister

ROMA, February 11, 2009 – At the Vatican as well, they had deceived themselves that the Beijing Olympics would lead to greater freedom for the Catholic Church. But the news coming to Rome from China shows the contrary.  [Hoping against hope, perhaps?  Proceeding because there was no other choice?  I don’t know.  I have, however, stated more than once on this blog that the Holy See doesn’t understand that when playing chess with the Chinese, they might be playing by different rules.  Chinese chess ain’t quite the same game.]

Meanwhile, once again the Chinese authorities have not permitted bishops to leave the country, to participate in the synod last October.

In the second place, the episcopal see of Beijing – occupied in recent decades strictly by bishops appointed by the government, and without the authorization of the pope, but "reconquered" by Rome two summers ago with the installation of a new bishop approved both by the government and by the Holy See – is in serious danger of being lost again.

In fact, the new bishop, Joseph Li Shan (in the photo) whom cardinal secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone had hailed as "a very good and suitable person," [His name keeps popping up in these less than successful ventures, doesn’t it.] is increasingly stringing together actions submissive toward the regime. To such an extent that many among the faithful already consider him a "traitor."

In the third place, the communist party has intensified its pressure to subjugate the Church and separate a significant part of it from Rome. [What a surprise.] This pressure is mainly exercised on the bishops installed by the government. Most of these, year after year, had returned to communion with the pope. But now some of them are wavering.

In July of 2007, Benedict XVI had written an open letter to Catholics in China, to help them establish unity between themselves and Rome. But the process of reconciliation and rebuilding of the Chinese Church timidly undertaken after that letter now seems to have come to a halt.

Last April, a second letter went out from the Vatican to China, this time confidential and addressed only to the bishops. But the letter, signed by Cardinal Bertone, [uh huh] seemed to some of the bishops like a step backward in comparison with that of the pope. It was too deferential toward the Chinese authorities[you don’t say!]

"Asia News," the online agency with a special focus on China, founded and directed by Fr. Bernardo Cervellera of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, has carried out a survey among the Chinese bishops. The results have been called "disturbing."

To such an extent that Cardinal Zen Zekiun, [God grant him length of days!] making use of the greater freedom that he enjoys as a citizen of Hong Kong, has broken the paralysis and raised the alarm. He has urged his brother bishops on the mainland not to give in, and to be more courageous in opposing the pressure from the regime.

He follows with an indepth piece by Fr. Cervellera of Asia News.  You can read that yourself, and I urge you to do so.

Here are some salient excerpts:

The bishop of Beijing, the Vatican, and compromising with the Patriotic Association

by Bernardo Cervellera

Just over a year after the ordination of their current bishop, the Catholics of Beijing are divided in their opinion of him, and more and more of them are accusing him of betraying the Church of Rome.   [vox populi]

The faithful have been taken aback by his way of doing things, by speeches that seem to be slipping conctinually toward absolute submission to the Patriotic Association, dedicated to creating and controlling a Catholic Church independent of Rome.

In all of these speeches and statements, the tone and slogans used are characteristic of the language of the party, and of the most radical period of communism in China, that of the Cultural Revolution. The faithful are astonished, and are wondering how in the world their pastor could turn so quickly into a Red Guard, showing even more servility toward power than his predecessor did.

According to information obtained by "Asian News," Bishop Li Shan has repented of his actions [his favorable relations with Rome] and has justified his behavior on the basis of the pressure that he had to undergo. In effect, precisely because of the pope’s letter and the restoration of unity among almost all the Chinese bishops, the United Front and the Patriotic Association have, for over a year, launched a series of initiatives to bring the official Chinese bishops back into obedience – to them. The United Front and the CPCA summon them constantly, require them to participate in conferences, meetings, study sessions, political sessions, making their pastoral work very difficult. The bishops are not even able to meet among themselves alone, and go from a life in solitude – at the mercy of the CPCA secretaries – to collective gatherings under the control and indoctrination of the United Front and the state administration for religious affairs.


To keep the bishops united and halt the influence of the CPCA, on April 22, 2008, the Vatican sent a letter to all the Chinese bishops in communion with Rome. Signed by Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the letter took months to reach the 90 or so bishops in the official and underground Church. Some of them didn’t get it until December of 2008.

Cardinal Bertone’s letter is important because for the first time it asks the official and underground bishops to meet. But it avoids giving them a joint approach to take toward the CPCA. The previous letter from the pope had noted that this is contrary to Catholic doctrine, but did not ask official bishops to resign from them.

Some underground bishops have said that a more decisive stance on the part of the Holy See would be more effective.

So far, official bishops have tried to resist CPCA pressure, but with few results. At the same time, some underground bishops have tried to get government recognition without joining the CPCA, but no local government has accepted this solution, reaffirming instead the central role played by the CPCA in the government’s religious policies.

Many Catholics, both official and underground, are afraid that without clear and specific guidelines from the Holy See, official bishops will be forced by events and individual interpretations of the papal letter into making compromises.


In recent months, more than a year after the release of the pope’s letter to Chinese Catholics, "Asia News" conducted a survey among Chinese bishops as to their attitudes towards Benedict XVI’s guidelines. Some answers are startling. On the one hand, some bishops praise the letter and the pontiff’s teachings, which urge unity with him and among themselves. On the other hand, they do not seem at all disturbed by the fact that the document describes the CPCA’s programs and policies as "incompatible" with Catholic doctrine.

So in their replies, a number of the official bishops lavishly praised the Association for its "help to the Church" and the "needy," as well as for "taking care of religion." Some bishops in central China went so far as to say that the CPCA and the Church "are one and the same."

A Catholic from northern China told "Asia News": "Official bishops lack guts. When Beijing tells them to get together, they get going right away. … Other Catholics, especially in Beijing, accuse the bishops of being greedy for power and money; this said to be why they accept compromises.


Out of this ambiguous and confused situation, the clear voice of Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong has emerged, asking bishops and priests in the official Church to be more courageous and resist making compromises with the regime.

Zen says that given the danger of serious compromises, the experience of the underground Church is even more valuable. For this reason, the cardinal was blasted the celebrations that on 19 December of last year marked the 50th anniversary of illicit episcopal ordinations in China.

For the bishop of Hong Kong, there is nothing to celebrate, because the system of "self-ordination" is the work of 1950’s extreme left-wing radicals who saw the pope as an agent of imperialism. But this view is outdated, at a time when China is celebrating 30 years of economic reforms implemented to oppose this radical mentality.

"Forcing Catholics to go against their conscience is a great insult to the dignity of every Chinese citizen," the cardinal writes. "This is why there is nothing to be proud of or to celebrate. Such celebrations are a sign that the establishment won’t let go, that it wants our great nation to bear the mark of backwardness."

For the cardinal, it is clear that all of the hoopla over the CPCA’s 50th anniversary, its "self-ordinations," is a preparation for meetings to elect the new presidents of the Patriotic Association and the Chinese bishops’ council. He suggests the bishops should boycott the next meeting to which they are summoned. "Isn’t taking part in such an ‘assembly’ a show of total contempt for the papal letter? Isn’t it a slap in the face? Can your conscience let you do this? Will God’s people accept it? Will it bring any honour to our nation? Will there be hope for a return to normalcy and the enjoyment of freedom of religion?"

In the article, Cardinal Zen says that some members of the Chinese Church are praising compromises and ambiguity. "Some people, talking to the brothers in the underground community, seem to be saying: ‘We are very smart to accept a compromise! We are in communion with the Holy Father and at the same time are recognised by the government. They give us money and we take care of our faithful. You instead prefer to go to prison; you would rather die. And then what of your faithful; abandoned, with no one taking care of them’. "

The cardinal continues: "So, martyrdom has become a stupid thing? That’s absurd; a short-sighted view! Reaching compromises might make sense as a short-term strategy but it cannot last forever. Being secretly united with the Holy Father and at the same time affiliated with a Church that declares itself autonomous from Rome is a contradiction."

Finally, Cardinal Zen ends with a fraternal appeal: "Dear brother bishops and priests, look at the example of Saint Stephen and all the martyrs of our history! Remember that suffering for the sake of the faith is the basis of victory even if right now it might appear as defeat."

Pray pray pray for the Church in China.

Perhaps you could make this one of your Lenten projects: daily prayer for Catholics in China. 

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. YoungCatholicSTL says:

    Despite these setbacks, if anyone can obtain a reconcilliation with the Chinese Catholic Church (even despite the Chinese governmental antics), it is Benedict The Regatherer!

    And so I pray even harder for the Pope, the Chinese Catholics, the SSPX, and the TAC. Soon, I pray, they will all be reunited with Rome.

  2. Maureen says:

    It’s smart of Cardinal Zen to play the “nye kulturny” card — lack of religious freedom as backward and not worthy of China’s governmental dignity. Don’t know if it’ll work, though.

  3. J. Wong says:

    Our Lady of She-Shan pray for the Church in China.

  4. Mike T says:

    As we read of the struggles that Catholics face in China, we must learn
    never again to think of this as an example of the difficulties faced
    by people living in a particularly afflicted nation. Instead, we need to
    recognize the invasive of state authorities as a real and immediate
    danger shared by all believers.

    I grew up during the Cold War and was accustomed to think of my country
    as a place in which freedom of religion was securely enshrined. The Cold
    War is now over, but that is not the only change to have occurred in
    the last 50 years.

    Our reliance must be on Almighty God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    Which psalm is it that says it is better to trust in the Lord than to
    trust in princes? That goes for Washington and Brussels just as well
    as Beijing.

  5. Mike T says:

    Second sentence of first paragraph. Make that “… invasive nature of state
    authority …”

    Sorry about that.

    …think then post…think then post…think then post

  6. Athanasius says:

    Thank you for posting these articles, Father. I fully take on board your request that we make this prayer our Lenten project.

    I’m given to understand that coupled with these problems (no doubt because of them) there is a real crisis of catechesis in the Chinese Church, to the extent where Catholic identity is suffering greatly. This lack surely tells in situations like those you describe.

    It is amazing, despite all this (and the still-existing threat of persecution), how the underground churches continue to thrive.

  7. Ed says:

    I find it ironic that everyone is so worked up by the 4 SSPX Bishops but not a word about the countless illicit bishops running the Above Ground Church in China. The Liberals and Jews dont seem to have any trouble that the mass murderer Communist Leaders are appointing Catholic Bishops there. WHAT HYPOCRISY! [Breathe deeply. I think most people are like me: I can only be enraged about a couple things at a time, and that only for very short periods of time.]

  8. Mary in CO says:

    Fr. Z., thank you. Will definitely pray for the Catholics in China. Have found the Holy Father’s prayer for the Church in China, which so beautifully seeks the intercession of Our Lady of She-Shan. Last portion of the prayer:

    Our Lady of Sheshan, sustain all those in China, who, amid their daily trails, continue to believe, to hope, to love. May they never be afraid to speak of Jesus to the world, and of the world to Jesus. In the statue overlooking the Shrine you lift your Son on high, offering him to the world with open arms in a gesture of love. Help Catholics always to be credible witnesses to this love, ever clinging to the rock of Peter on which the Church is built. Mother of China and all Asia, pray for us, now and for ever. Amen!

  9. Mary in CO says:

    Sorry for misspelled words. Next time, spelling checker (even on content from web sites)!

    Our Lady of She-shan, sustain all those in China, who, amid their daily trials, continue to believe, to hope, to love. May they never be afraid to speak of Jesus to the world, and of the world to Jesus. In the statue overlooking the Shrine you lift your Son on high, offering him to the world with open arms in a gesture of love. Help Catholics always to be credible witnesses to this love, ever clinging to the rock of Peter on which the Church is built. Mother of China and all Asia, pray for us, now and forever. Amen!

  10. Andrew, UK and sometimes Canada says:

    God bless and preserve the loyal bishops of China. I once heard that the true Church of China, the underground Church, still celebrated the TLM widely because of its sometime isolation from Rome. Indeed, I heard from the same story that the faithful there were shocked when confronted with the new Mass. Is this true? Is the TLM still the norm for the true Church in China?

  11. John Enright says:

    I think that all of us in the Free World have to offer daily prayers for our Chinese brothers and sisters.

  12. J Kusske says:

    I cannot speak personally of the underground Church in China but I can tell you that they were actually the first to adopt mass in the vernacular since the “Patriotic Church” (sic) did not permit that until the early 1990’s. There are still TLM in a couple of the big cathedrals in Beijing and Shanghai, usually the first mass of the morning (6:00 or so) though in Shanghai there is one at St. Francis Xavier Church (Dongjiadu Street Church) at 10:30 AM. Some of my friends have more familiarity with the situation with the underground church. I can also tell you from personal experience that there are a lot of good people in the official church, even a goodly number of bishops, but the situation in Beijing and the surrounding Hebei Province is a lot dicier than in the rest of the country since the control there is much stricter.
    I will certainly be praying this Lenten season, and hard–thank you Fr. Z for your continued concern for our suffering brothers and sisters in the faith in China! Tianzhu baoyou ni! (God bless you)

  13. WenWen says:

    Good comment from J Kusske. Absolutely correct that the situation in Beijing and Hebei is more difficult than the rest of China – and will remain so, for years. Proximity to power in China, whether in imperial times, or now, means proximity to control. But it’s worthy to contrast Bishop Li’s situation with, say, that of new bishops in places like Guangzhou, Shenyang, and elsewhere, who are not only faithful to the Holy See, but are able to use their status as government-recognized bishops to expand the rights and opportunities for China’s Catholics. Looking on the bright side of things: China’s church – including Beijing’s – are full. In Shanghai, and in Beijing, every Sunday mass – and I mean, every last one – is packed to the rafters in the government-recognized churches and cathedrals. In Shanghai’s heavily monitored St. Ignatius Cathedral, more than 1000 people show up for the four Sunday masses – and that, despite the fact that there are more than 120 more official churches from which the faithful can choose in that sprawling city.

    In my opinion, the Holy See’s relations with the bishops is heavily weighed in favor of this vibrant and GROWING laity. To be sure, the Holy See wants to see more obediance (and defiance of government initiatives) by its faithful bishops. But, at the same time, I suspect that it has little to no interest in alienating the government such that the millions of new Catholics are restricted in their ability to receive the sacraments. It’s a very, very fine line, and one that requires brave and difficult choices by Rome – choices that might strike Catholics outside of China as less than dignified. But for Catholics inside of China, Rome’s willingness to maintain a connection to bishops who are less than perfect is a crucial lifeline, and a signal beacon that they, too, are part of the Universal Church, despite less than perfect circumstances. Bertone might not be perfect, but I think he’s playing a very, very tough hand.

    One quick correction to J Kusske: actually, the government-recognized church was the first to adopt the vernacular, via the Novus Ordo, in September 1989. Then Fr. Joseph Zen (now our beloved Cardinal Archbishop) celebrated it at the government-recognized Sheshan Seminary, right below – yes, you guessed it – the Shrine to Our Lady.

  14. danh says:

    Fr. Z. or anyone,

    Very shortly, my daughter will be headed to Handan in Hebei province to teach English for six months.

    What is the Official Church stand on the status of the government approved churches in regards to her receiving sacraments there? Is this Ok?

    She regularly attends TLMs and would like to know if there are any in Handan. I know it is a bigger city and the chances of her being close to one are small, so any help would be appreciated.


  15. John Kusske says:

    Dear Danh,

    I taught English and studied Chinese in North China for three years so I can say a few things to help you. When I lived in a small city my first year even there I could go to mass at the Catholic church in town, so your daughter should be able to do the same in Handan, which is a pretty large town it seems. The official churches have valid sacraments, and it’s dangerous for the underground Catholics for foreigners to try to have dealings with them, so I never attempted to go to them though some of my foreign friends in China did on the quiet (but not to receive the sacraments). Hebei Province has a lot of problems with underground believers being treated very badly by the local authorities, but Handan seems to be in the southern part of the province further away from Beijing so the situation there might be somewhat better. Over the border to the west is Shanxi Province, which is a Catholic powerhouse where the official and underground churches are basically one and the same, which bodes well. The first thing to do would be to check out the local church. It would just have masses in the Novus Ordo in Chinese, almost certainly, but English has been becoming more prevalent in larger cities (College students like to go to English masses when they exist). Latin masses only exist in a few churches in the very big cities, in the earliest mass of the day, in my experience–Beijing has a couple at 6:00 AM, but Shanghai has one at 10:30 AM which is much better. Anyway, your daughter would be very well served to have a good missal on hand, so she’d be able to go to mass in whatever language is easiest to find (most likely Chinese).

    Handan is a famous city in ancient Chinese sayings, including the idiom “learn the Handan way of walking”–I am interested to hear how it is now if you’re willing. This coming July there will be a total solar eclipse in China too, so I hope that she is able to go down to the Yangtze River valley to see it–Wuhan, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou will all see the totality. I’m hoping to make it to Shanghai. You can contact me at

  16. danh says:

    Dear John Kusske,

    Thank you for your kind and informative response.

    I had indeed counseled her to avoid the underground Church so as not to endanger them. As one of only a handful of whites in the two million person city core, she would be most noticeable.

    Thank you for your mail address and the hint about having a good missal. I will print you response and let her respond, if she wishes.

    In Christ,
    Dan Hatchen

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