Catholic leader not recognised by the Vatican

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 December, 2010, 12:00am

Beijing appointed a bishop not recognised by the Holy See as head of the mainland's Catholic clergy yesterday in a move likely to jeopardise a continuing Sino-Vatican diplomatic dialogue.

But Beijing also selected a Vatican-approved bishop to be the new leader of the state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association - a body denounced by the Holy See in 2007 as being incompatible with church doctrine.

As the eighth national congress of Catholics closed yesterday, Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin - from the Kunming diocese in Yunnan province, who was unilaterally ordained by Beijing without papal approval in 2006 - was selected as president of the Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference.

The bishops' conference and the association are supposed to be the highest governing bodies of the mainland Catholic Church.

But it is the association which holds real power, and Bishop Johan Fang Xingyao of the Linyi diocese in Shandong - a bishop recognised by both the Vatican and Beijing - was selected as its chairman.

The move, which surprised many observers, has added further uncertainty to Sino-Vatican relations which have been deteriorating rapidly in recent months following the ordination of Joseph Guo Jincai by Beijing as bishop of the Chengde diocese in Hebei last month without Vatican approval.

For months, the Vatican has warned mainland bishops against attending the national congress, which is seen as a breach of church doctrine. But 313 representatives - 45 bishops, 158 priests, 23 nuns and 87 lay people, took part in the elections which confirmed Ma and Fang yesterday.

Anthony Liu Bainian , the most powerful figure in the mainland church and previously the association's vice-chairman, was raised to the positions of honorary president of the bishops' conference and the association.

Catholic Church insiders saw the latest developments as 'clear provocation', as installing a bishop not recognised by the Pope as head of the mainland clergy is a slap in the face for the Holy See.

The appointment of a Vatican-recognised bishop to head the patriotic association is a further humiliation.

'It is now very clear that Beijing is not willing to continue its dialogue with the Holy See,' a person close to Rome said. 'All the efforts in previous years to improve relations have been wasted.'

Some observers have warned that the large number of bishops who attended the congress - including some well-respected ones earlier considered loyal to Rome - indicated the success of the pressure Beijing has put on the clergy.

Amid reports that some of the clergy who attended had been forced to do so by mainland police, Ma reportedly told the congress that the mainland church would 'steadfastly raise the patriotic standard' and would continue down the path of independence from the Vatican.

The Vatican is expected to issue a statement in the coming days.