Thu, Oct 25, 2018 - Page 9 News List

In China’s Catholic heartland, Vatican deal brings CCP closer

By Christian Shepherd  /  Reuters, DONGLU VILLAGE, China

In 1996, a tiny village with a huge Gothic-style church in China’s Catholic heartland of Hebei Province was the scene of a tense standoff between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the faithful.

Authorities surrounded Donglu village’s Our Lady of China Catholic Church, blocking thousands of pilgrims and detaining Vatican-ordained Bishop Su Zhimin (蘇志民), who was a member of the “underground” Church, not the state-backed official Church which did not recognize the pope’s authority to name bishops.

Despite repeated appeals to Chinese authorities from Vatican officials and underground clergy, it is unclear whether Su, who would now be 86, is still being held or is even alive.

Decades on, the Donglu church’s ties with officials are now convivial, according to Diao Ligang, a local priest, reflecting a generational shift toward acceptance of the party’s authority over China’s Catholics.

“Before, it was as if they kept wanting to see what we were hiding in our fist,” Diao said. “But then we opened it and they realized there was nothing dangerous in there in the first place.”

Last month’s secretive deal with the Vatican, which gives the Holy See a long-sought and decisive say over the appointment of new bishops, sets the stage for Beijing to recognize some underground congregations. Details of how and when this process might happen have not been released.

Interviews with five underground priests and two dozen believers in Hebei suggest previously stark divisions between underground Catholics loyal to the Vatican and churches officially registered with the Chinese authorities have blurred in recent years.

The coming together reflects growing, if grudging, acceptance of government oversight by the faithful, as the Vatican pushes for a reconciliation with Beijing and many of the older generation that had expressed staunch opposition to the party are either silenced or dead.

Still, Cardinal Joseph Zen (陳日君), 86, the outspoken former archbishop of Hong Kong, has led an international chorus of conservative critics who say the deal is a sellout to the party and an insult to those who had suffered under oppression.

He and other opponents of the secretive deal warn the expected gradual folding of unofficial churches into a government system of control risks abandoning a group of “loyalist” bishops and priests, who for decades resisted joining the Catholic Patriotic Association, as the state-backed church is known, and have been punished as a result.

China says there are 6 million Catholics in the country, across 98 officially approved dioceses.

The Holy Spirit Study Centre, run by the diocese of Hong Kong, estimates that there are 10 million believers spread over 144 dioceses.

Such discrepancies have been the subject of closed-door negotiations for more than a decade between Beijing and the Vatican, which wants to preserve and expand the Catholic community in China.

The Vatican went ahead with the provisional deal, despite it failing to address some outstanding points of contention, because it feared the two churches would split even further apart, resulting in a schism that would become irreparable, Vatican sources said.

At four recent services attended by journalists, three official and one at an “underground” church, there was little that was discernibly different between those at churches loyal to Beijing or the Vatican.

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