Chinese Catholics: The Patriotic Association is the real obstacle to China-Vatican relations


by Bernardo Cervellera

At the conclusion of the Vatican meeting on the Church in China, faithful of the official and underground Church point their finger at the violence, suppression and persecution of the AP, which puts at risk the efforts of the Holy See to reconcile the Church in China and threatens the sacramental foundations of the catholic faith. Five priests still prisoners in Hebei.

Rome (AsiaNews) – “The greatest obstacle in diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China in the omnipresence of the Patriotic Association (Ap). It is also the most serious problem for the life of the Church, because it risks corrupting the dogmatic fundaments of Catholicism.  The Vatican must seek to neutralize it ”: Catholics from the official and underground Church tell AsiaNews .

Ideological control

Founded on August 2nd 1957, with the aim of mediating between the ideals of the Party and the Catholic Church, the AP has taken a lethal stranglehold of the life of Chinese communities.

With over 3 thousand secretaries, vice secretaries, chief officials and many more local officials the AP is able to control and dominate the small group of circa. 5 million official Catholics, thus preventing that any step by the Church escapes their notice: they nominate bishops, they “advise” the bishops on parish appointments, they decide who can teach seminarians; they evaluate vocations male and female for the entrance to seminaries and convents; they superintend diocesan administration.

Their “ideological” control is more or less total.  “When something happens in a diocese or in a parish – says a Catholic from Northern China – the AP secretary does not advise the Bishop first, but his provincial and regional bosses.  They organize a meeting to see what to do and how to face the question and then they communicate the problem and the solution to the Bishop”. Thanks to their alert vigilance, seminarians receive a supplementary lesson on the Party’s religious policies each month and they are tested each time to verify whether they have assimilated the lesson.

 “Democracy” in theology

Compared to what happens in churches all over the world – where authority rests with the Bishops and the Episcopal conference – in China the supreme authority of the official Church is a “Unitary Assembly of the AP and the Chinese Bishops Council” formed by representatives of the catholic organisations (chosen by AP), secretaries of AP and bishops, where the latter is in the minority. All decisions – at least according to the statute- are taken “democratically”.  “This democratic aspect – says another Catholic – is false: in reality the AP decides and enforces its decisions. In Beijing, where they are preparing to replace the gravely ill Patriotic Bishop Fu Tieshan, the AP has already established the manes of candidates as successors and has made clear that it will not accept others”.

The point is that the Assembly also deals with theology, liturgy and Church sacraments, among which the ordination of bishops.  In this way, the life and heart of the Church are submitted to political decisions and also to a “democratic” method which corrupts and risks destroying the apostolic dimension and sacramental faith of Catholicism.

In the last decades, many Bishops from the official Church have recognised their ambiguous situation and have secretly asked the Pope’s forgiveness, reconciling themselves with the Holy See and belonging to the AP in name only.  Thanks to a more frequent communication with China – and a certain détente with the Chinese government – the Holy See even succeeded in having bishops chosen by her elected. But the situation is rather precarious, as is proven by the recent illicit ordinations which took place last year.  At least 45 dioceses (out of 97) of the official Church are without a bishop or with elderly bishops.   If the AP proceeds with a series of quick ordinations it risks creating a parallel Church, destroying the efforts of reconciliation carried out by the Vatican in these years.

Underground Catholics arrested by the AP

The AP is also the cause of the persecutions.  In China, all Catholics who refuse AP control meet in place that are not recognised by the         Government, with priests who are not registered and Bishops tied to the Holy See, but not recognised by the ministry for Religious Affaire.  According to a retired member of the Ministry, “the members of the AP reveal the places of the underground communities; they lead the police there and insist on the arrest of the non official Catholics”.

According to AsiaNews data at least 17 underground bishops have disappeared, been arrested or are detained in isolation; 20 priests have been arrested.  The latest arrest took place on December 27th in Hebei.  Of the 9 priests arrested, 5 remain in prison, 4 have been released.

Some official bishops confirm that there has been a hardening in AP ideology in recent years.  It is due above all to the fact that “the most part of secretaries are not Catholic, but atheist, among the most radical members of the Party whose scope is to destroy all religions or at least closely control them”.

The AP only obstacle between the Holy See and China

This hardening is noted in the increased persecution of the underground communities and the tighter control of the official communities.  According to Catholics interviewed by AsiaNews, the motive is found in the small advances in dialogue between China and the Vatican. “The AP – they say – is now the only real obstacle in the way of re-establishing diplomatic relations between Rome and Beijing. This is why they block every step taken by the Government and suggest that there is no need for relations with the Holy See because China is strong and powerful.  The Vatican must try to push for the neutralization of this organisation”.

Even the recent illicit ordinations are seen as a “stumbling block” in the way of the détente between Beijing and the Holy See.

Another element which increases tension is the increase in believers faithful to the Pope and the Catholic Church, and who increasingly despise the AP.  This contempt is fed by the scandals surrounding members of the AP and Ministry for Religious Affairs who in the course of the years have taken possession of diocesan property and land.  According to Chinese law, following the seizure of the Cultural Revolution, this property should be restored to the Catholic Church.  Instead the “controllers” of the Church have signed the property over to themselves, sold them or transformed them into Hotels, pocketing the profits.  According to data of the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong,  profits illegally pocketed by the AP and ministry amount to 130 billion Yuan (circa 13 billion Euro).

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