Vatican warns bishops not to attend national meeting

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 March, 2010, 12:00am

The Vatican has, for the first time, issued a stern, public warning to all bishops on the mainland, asking them not to take part in an upcoming national Catholic conference to be organised by Beijing. The Vatican considers the conference a breach of Catholic doctrine.

Following a meeting of the papal commission on China affairs this week, it also expressed the hope that the mainland authorities would recognise the role of bishops in leading the church, rather than the current control by the central government through the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

The strong messages represent a surprise demonstration of resolve by the Holy See, which has previously been criticised for being too willing to compromise with Beijing.

At the end of its three-day annual plenary session, the commission, which counts bishops from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as members in addition to top Vatican officials handling China affairs, issued a statement saying that 'all bishops in China' should stand firm on church principles.

In particular, it said, they should avoid 'gestures (such as, for example, sacramental celebrations, episcopal ordinations and participation in meetings) that run counter to communion with the Pope who appointed them pastors', which would only create difficulties, 'sometimes severe difficulties', in church communities.

Beijing is planning to organise a national conference for Catholics, which will elect the next leadership of the patriotic association, and the bishops' conference - bodies whose constitutions are considered by the Vatican to be incompatible with Catholic doctrine.

Despite previous private messages to mainland bishops urging them to avoid participating in the national conference, to be held later this year, some bishops and episcopal candidates awaiting approval by either the Vatican or Beijing attended a preparatory meeting last year.

The stronger stance taken at this week's commission meeting is being seen as a demonstration of resolve, resulting from intense lobbying by hardliners who believe church principles should not be sacrificed for smoother dialogue with Beijing - an exercise which has reached a delicate stage dealing with how to 'normalise' the Catholic Church on the mainland.

Before the meeting, participants expected no major breakthrough on the Vatican's China policy. Observers now believe that doves in the Vatican gave in because they realised certain bottom lines must be set to avoid mishandling the complicated situation in the mainland church.

The Vatican and Beijing have yet to re-establish diplomatic relations. Key differences remain over who has the power to appoint mainland bishops, and the role of the patriotic association, which currently takes the place of the bishops in administering dioceses.

The statement released after the meeting also called for bishops and priests 'long been deprived of their freedom' to be allowed to 'once again exercise their episcopal and priestly ministry'.

Speaking after the issuing of the statement, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, hailed it as a success, saying it set the tone for the next phase of the Vatican's China policy.

'We have to maintain the truth when carrying out charity. The truth must be spoken, and now the Holy See has made its position very clear over the national conference issue, as well as its position on the role of the mainland bishops,' Zen said.