Fri, May 05, 2006 - Page 9 News List

China puts Vatican on hold, digs in for better deal on ties


Beijing's decision to ordain two bishops without papal consent shows that maintaining control over the Catholic Church in China is more important than restoring ties with the Vatican, analysts say.

The consecrations of priests Ma Yinglin (馬英林) on Sunday and Liu Xinhong (劉新紅) on Wednesday despite Vatican objections came amid delicate negotiations between the Holy See to reestablish diplomatic ties that Beijing severed in 1951.

China's officially atheist Communist Party rulers have long insisted on two conditions for resuming relations -- that the Vatican end diplomatic ties with Taiwan, its arch-rival, and does not interfere in its internal affairs.

Talks had appeared to gain momentum before this week's ordinations. Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen (陳日君) had said the Vatican was willing to cut ties with Taiwan.

Richard Madsen, a China-Vatican relations expert at the University of California, San Diego, also pointed to the compromise reached between the Holy See and Beijing on the appointment of three bishops last year.

"The bishops appointed last year, including, very significantly, the bishop for Shanghai, were done with Vatican approval. These involve delicate informal discussions," Madsen said. "The fact that agreement could be reached, especially about the bishop for Shanghai, was a good sign that it would be possible for Beijing and the Vatican to reach a formal accommodation."

"If Beijing wanted to keep the negotiations moving forward, it wouldn't have now appointed bishops who are blatantly unacceptable to the Vatican. ... It is unclear to me that Beijing wants negotiations to go forward at this time," he said.

The biggest hurdle is Beijing's wish to retain authority over China's Roman Catholics and essentially over all religion in the country, China expert Dorian Malovic wrote in his book The Yellow Pope.

"The main issue for Beijing is to be able to build a new religious policy for the whole country, especially for the Catholics," Malovic wrote. "The establishment of diplomatic relations with the Vatican would automatically involve very deep reform of the role of the political structure that has been in place to control religion."

A majority of 79 bishops appointed by China are already indirectly recognized by the Vatican anyway, Malovic and other analysts said.

So the real issue is not how bishops are selected but who controls the Church, they said.

Some experts said the recent appointments could be an attempt by China's government-appointed agency in charge of Catholic affairs -- the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association -- to retain its power.

"I do not think it is correct to speak about Beijing here," said Benoit Vermander, a China-Vatican expert at the Ricci Institute in Taiwan. "Rather, we should speak about the Catholic Patriotic Association, which has its own agenda, namely defending its administrative position and its privileges within the regime. It is responsible for the appointment of bishops."

However, Beatrice Leung (梁潔芬), an expert at Taiwan's Wenzao Ursuline College, disagreed.

"If it's just Ma, then it could be a small move by the Patriotic Association, but it happened a second time, so the central authority must know," she said.

Liu Bainian (劉柏年), vice chairman of the Patriotic Association, said appointments of bishops were necessary for the normal functioning of the church.

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