Catholics facing dangerous rift as illicit bishops turn to government
Although there have been rumours of a reconciliation between the Vatican and the Catholic Church in China for many years, Ren Yanli, the former head of the Christian Studies Section at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' World Religions Institute, says Beijing never had any intention of normalising ties.
'China never said it wanted to restore relations with the Vatican,' said Ren, who obtained a doctorate from the Catholic University of Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy, in 2001.
'It never said that - it was just the Vatican [that wanted to restore ties].' Ren, who peppers his speech with fluent Italian, also attributes the recent moves to dominate the Catholic Church to the upcoming change of leadership in China in November next year, which he says has 'pushed policy-making to the far left'.
The rift puts Catholics in a deli- cate position, and some fear the possibility of a schism within the church as the number of illicit bishops with close ties to the government grows.
'It's dangerous. There's a risk of a split,' said a Hong Kong-based European Catholic priest who monitors the Catholic Church in China. 'If more and more bishops get involved in the illicit ordinations, we'll have two groups of bishops in the church. That will make the divisions even stronger.'
An expert on the Catholic Church says there is concern that Chinese Catholics, who are under constant pressure, might begin to feel that the Catholic Church in China 'could do without Rome ... there's a risk that some bishops will begin to feel it's better to side with the government rather than the Holy See'.
However, the illicit ordinations could backfire on Beijing, he says.
'You're going to end up with bishops that are completely ineffectual because their own priests, sisters and lay Catholics will ignore them.'
Ren, who is sympathetic to the plight of the Catholic Church in China, puts the blame on the government, saying it should not get involved in religion.
'It is not in the interest of the government or the country,' he said. 'The church has no military, no power to overthrow you. What country is so foolish as to challenge religion?'
Experts say it is unlikely either side will back down.
A European scholar who studies the Catholic Church in China says the move against the church is coming from 'somewhere at the top' and that it is part of a general crackdown waged since late last year against unofficial Catholics, house Christians, rights lawyers and activists - dozens of whom have been arrested over the past eight months.
'The regime thinks things should go this way,' he says. 'There are no grey areas; no more tolerance for people talking about a middle way.'
Up until about 2006, the two sides jostled over the ordination of bishops to head China's 97 dioceses. However, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the World Expo in Shanghai last year and several important recent anniversaries, the Communist Party felt a need for international support, and so adopted a temporary truce to win the support of the Vatican and the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world.
But this all changed in November last year, when the party began to make moves to take control of the church.
'They waited until the Olympic Games had passed,' said the European priest. 'They now feel stronger in terms of the international community.'
years since the Vatican has had formal diplomatic exchanges with Beijing, relations were severed in 1951