Bishops as pawns?
For the first time since he became pontiff in 2005, Pope Benedict included in his annual Christmas message a comment on the lack of religious freedom in China. 'May the birth of the saviour strengthen the spirit of faith, patience and courage of the faithful of the church in mainland China,' the Pope said, 'that they may not lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience but ... may keep alive the flame of hope.'
The papal message is the latest indication that all is not well between the Catholic Church and China, both of which boast a history of thousands of years. There are about a billion Catholics in the world, compared with 1.3 billion Chinese, of whom about 12 million are Catholics.
After the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, it broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican and set two conditions for their re-establishment: that the Vatican must 'not interfere in religious matters in China' and that the Vatican must break official relations with the government in Taiwan.
In recent years, the Vatican has indicated its willingness to accept the second condition but has insisted that the Chinese government should not violate religious freedom, which has largely boiled down to how Catholic bishops in China are chosen.
Beijing's position is that the appointment of Chinese bishops is a domestic affair to be decided by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which was created by the government, while the Vatican insists that Catholic bishops can only be appointed by the Pope.
Since 2007, the Chinese have obtained tacit Vatican approval before the ordination of new bishops. However, a new, harder line has crept into Chinese policy in recent months. This may well have to do with a decision by Beijing to adopt a more confrontational stance vis-a-vis the West after the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo .
In November, the pro-government patriotic church ordained Joseph Guo Jincai as the bishop of Chengde , Hebei, without papal approval, apparently the first such case since 2007.
On December 1, the Pope issued an appeal to Catholics around the world to pray for Catholics in China who, he said, 'are living through particularly difficult times'. At almost the same time, a non-Catholic government official was appointed deputy rector of the Catholic Theological and Philosophical Seminary in the province, leading to a rare protest by seminarians.
The following week, a national congress was held at which new Chinese Catholic leaders were installed. Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin , who was ordained by Beijing without papal approval in 2006, was selected as president of the Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference, while the new leader of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association is Bishop Johan Fang Xingyao, who is recognised by the Vatican as legitimate.
The fact that a prelate was installed as head of an association denounced by the Holy See as being incompatible with church doctrine led it to issue a strongly worded statement deploring the Chinese government's 'persistent desire' to control its citizens, saying that this 'does no credit to China'. It 'seems to be a sign of fear and weakness rather than of strength; of intransigent intolerance rather than openness to freedom', the statement says.
The Vatican also acknowledged that many bishops and priests were forced to take part in the congress against their will.
Beijing's response has been unyielding. In fact, a Foreign Ministry spokesman accused the Vatican of violating freedom of religion by interfering in the affairs of the state-run church.
The Chinese government seems unwilling to accept the biblical injunction to 'render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's'. Instead, the Communist Party, which is officially atheistic, seems to be arrogating to itself the prerogatives of both Caesar and God.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator