In a move that seems sure to increase tensions with the Vatican, Beijing has revised its regulations governing the selection and ordination of Catholic bishops in China
In a move destined to further complicate, and even worsen relations between Beijing and the Vatican, the Chinese authorities have revised significantly the regulations governing the process for the election and ordination of bishops for the Catholic Church in mainland China.
The revised regulations give the government-backed Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC) “overarching control” and the final say on who can become a bishop in the mainland, Church observers in China told UCA News, the main Catholic news agency in Asia, which broke the news on May 22.
The BCCCC is a body established by Beijing, but not recognized by the Holy See as a Bishops’ Conference.
The new ruling was approved in April but has only been made public now, UCA News stated. It replaces a less strict regulation that had been in place since 1993 regarding the process for the election of bishops in the Church.
The 1993 text had 6 regulations whereas the new one has 16. The revised text includes a demand that Catholic bishops must support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and its socialist system.
Under the 1993 regulations, a diocese was only required to fulfill the procedure at a provincial level and, unless they were faced with pressure from Beijing, local officials would often turn a blind eye to this process if the local diocese had good relations with the local authorities. That will no longer be the case.
The new regulations specify that a diocese has to seek agreement from the Beijing-based BCCCC and the Bureau for Religious Affairs to begin the process of electing and ordaining a new bishop, Anthony Lam Sui-ki, senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, told UCA News. It seems these revised regulations are aimed at strengthening the authority of those two state entities. The regulations also dictate how to set up an election committee.
“The revision is a regression as it blocks the normalization of Church life in China,” Anthony Lam said. He interpreted the revision as a reminder to bishops approved by the Holy See that they have “to be brave and not to be frightened by the authorities.”
Given the revised regulations, “Some dioceses might be forced to ordain their bishops secretly to prevent an illicit bishop presence in Vatican-approved Episcopal ordinations,” Kwun Ping-hung, a Church observer, told UCA News.
Four years ago, in 2009, the Holy See and China seemed to be close to reaching a basic agreement on the appointment of bishops, a subject that has been one of the major obstacles – though by no means the only one – to harmonious relations between the two sides. That agreement could not be concluded, however, due to Beijing’s underlying insistence that while the Pope could raise objections over a candidate to be bishop, and the final decision would remain with the Chinese.
Since then, and especially since 2011, Sino-Vatican relations have deteriorated. Some bishops have been ordained without the Pope’s approval and in spite of the Holy See’s objections, illegitimate bishops have been inserted into ordinations that had papal approval, and Shanghai’s new bishop, Ma Daqin, was deposed by the Chinese authorities at the end of 2012.
This latest move by Beijing will certainly not contribute to the improvement of relations between the Holy See and China. While it is not clear how much the new leadership in Beijing is actually behind this revision of the regulations, in any case, their publication has come as a cold shower on those who were beginning to nurture the hope that the path to rapprochement between the two sides might be opened again given that there is a new political leadership in Beijing and a new Pope in the Vatican.