Thursday, May 04, 2006

+Benedict XVI vs China

Soon after his election as Pope +Benedict XVI made it clear that there certain groups he wanted to restore communion with. They were the Orthodox Churches, the SSPX, and the so called Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. China has long suppressed the Roman Church out of suspicion over the influence of foreign controlled religions on it's soil. The Chinese answer was to create it's own state run church. The Vatican recognizes their apostolic lines (Rome's view on Holy Orders differs somewhat from the Orthodox position), but refused communion with them since they were seen as a schismatic body.

Over the course of the last year it appeared that there was a thaw in relations between the China and the Holy See. This was fueled by the desire of Rome to normalize the church in China and end the persecution of the underground Catholic Church (those who remained loyal to the Pope). China for it's part wanted to establish diplomatic ties with the Vatican and end Rome's relations with Taiwan. To date Rome is one of the last remaining countries that still has formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan as a sovereign nation.

However it now seems (as often is the case) that the devil was in the details. China apparently was simply unwilling to give up control over it's church. Over the last several days China undertook a course of action which was clearly designed to provoke the Vatican and end (at least for now) the talks with Rome. They consecrated two new bishops without the blessing of the Pope. In the Catholic Church this is a huge no no. Canon Law (cc 1382) specifies excommunication (automatically incurred) for those bishops illicitly consecrated as also for any bishops consecrating them. Because of the Catholic belief that Holy Orders is not dependant on grace which can be interrupted, anyone with valid apostolic lines who performs the correct rituals with the right intent can consecrate a bishop. This has been a huge source of concern for Rome with the proliferation of so called vegante bishops and schismatic sects. The same legal canon was invoked against Arbp. Lefebvre and his followers when they consecrated four bishops in 1988.

All of this was done despite some pretty strongly worded warnings from Rome and the Cardinal Archbishop of Hong Kong (where the Roman Church continues to operate more or less in the open for now) that the episcopal consecrations would be a seen as a provocation. Today Rome responded.

The Vatican has issued a statement sharply condemning the Chinese government's interference in the church and the consecrations. Specific mention was made of the "canonical sanctions" for illicit consecrations of bishops. This is being interpreted by the Vatican press corps to indicate Rome regards the four bishops (the two consecrated and the two who performed the rites) as being excommunicated. It's worth noting however, that the excommunications in cc 1382 are automatic. Rome did not pronounce Pro Forma any excommunication and indeed the word "excommunication" was not used in their official statement. But canon lawyers seem satisfied that this is amounts to a de facto acknowledgment that the "sanctions" mentioned in canon law have come into force.

So where does this leave things? For now it seems the Beijing spring for Sino-Vatican relations is over. China is a country which is very careful and measured in what it does. There is no way to interpret this other than as a very deliberate insult to Rome. China stuck its finger in Benedict's eye and did so in an extremely public manner. Even the NY Times has given significant play to this on their web page. Rome's response was a forgone conclusion and China knew what was coming. A more interesting question would be why did China do this?

This is largely conjecture. However, I suspect that China sees a population that is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with its government. They also remember the influence that the Roman Church had in subverting the various Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. At some point someone, or more likely several someones, in Beijing decided that allowing the Catholic Church freedom in China was an unacceptable risk at this point in time. The method employed to sabotage the talks was a face saving device calculated to make it appear that it was the Vatican ending negotiations. What this portends for the very large underground population of Catholics long persecuted in China is not clear. Likewise it is not clear what this may signal for the future of other religious groups seeking to escape from under the thumb of the state. On this and related issues, we will have to wait and see. But for now China has slammed the door on the Pope, and the Catholic Détente is over.

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