China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2011/Aug

Lamentations for an impending schism

No one reads the Book of Lamentations to feel good. The sense of grief, suffering, bewilderment and abandonment by God comes across strongly in those five chapters.

When the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem in 587BC and exiled most of the survivors, people wept. What had gone wrong? Who was to blame? Rather than suppress the painful memories, an unknown eyewitness reached for ink, parchment and a quill.

Lamentations became part of the bible, to be read in later generations, because different centuries have seen different disasters.

Sometimes the pain is more emotional than physical, forcing people to act against their consciences and breaking bonds of communion rather than breaking bones.

However it comes to pass, excommunication – the official breaking of visible Church union – is a serious step, a last resort. At times it is necessary, the least bad choice among a set of poor options. Yet the results can last for centuries, as Church history proves.

Three excommunications in Church history

In July 1054, after almost 200 years of misunderstanding and widening differences between the Latin- and Greek-speaking parts of the Church, the legate of Pope Leo IX excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople (now Istanbul).

In reply, Michael Cerularius and his bishops swiftly counterattacked, issuing denunciations and anathemas directed at Rome. Various attempts at reconciliation led to no lasting results, and the Great Schism continued.

In December 1965, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I lifted the excommunications, admitted both sides had made mistakes and, as brothers, looked hopefully to the future. After 911 years, the official condemnations were lifted.

Now, almost 46 years later, only a handful of Catholics and Orthodox still call each other bad names, but full communion remains over the horizon.

In November 1534, as a result of Henry VIII being unable to gain a marriage annulment, the English Church separated itself from the Roman Catholic Church.

The Act of Supremacy named the king as head of the Church of England, meaning that the Roman pontiff did not have any writ (jurisdiction) in England.

In December 1960, or 426 years later, the Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury, paid a courtesy call on Pope John XXIII in the Vatican. In 2011, after half a century of mutual contacts and prayers, there are still serious obstacles to reunion between Rome and Canterbury.

Blessed John XXIII earned a reputation of compassion and tolerance, yet he excommunicated Fidel Castro in January 1962. The head of a national communist party could hardly be recognised as a Catholic, not to mention religious persecution in Cuba.

In January 1998, merely 36 years later, Castro greeted His Holiness John Paul II at the Havana airport and the situation of the Church on that island has improved.

A difficult time for the Church in China

A generation ago, as China began to reform and open to the outside world, some people speculated that the pope would visit Beijing before long.

In 2011, no one should expect a papal visit any time soon. Soon might mean only a few decades, or the tension could last several centuries.

This is a discouraging time for human rights in China. The overall situation is as bleak as at any time since Tiananmen Square (天安門廣場) on 4 June 1989.

Lawyers and human rights advocates have been silenced by effective methods of pressure (South China Morning Post, 4 July 2011). Bishops were kidnapped and even intimidated to get them to concelebrate Mass for the ordination of a new bishop.

In spite of Vatican protests and warnings, bishops such as Paul Lei Shiyin (雷世銀), of Leshan in Sichuan (四川樂山), on June 29, and Joseph Huang Bingzhang (黄炳山), of Shantou in Guangdong (廣東汕頭), on July 14, have been ordained without papal approval.

In response, the Vatican has invoked Canon 1382, declared such rituals illicit and urged everyone not to recognise the authority of the newly ordained.

In spite of valiant resistance here and there, the ability of the Church to stop new ordinations is limited and there is talk of up to 40 new bishops before long to fill empty presider’s chairs in cathedrals.

Limited ability of outside help

“Far from me are all who could console me, any who might revive me; my sons were reduced to silence when the enemy prevailed” (Lamentations 1:16).

In the 14th century, the hardships of travel hindered and finally undid the Catholic mission to China. In the 21st century, while it has never been easier to visit China, promoting the interests of Rome is extremely low on the list of western interests.

In 1289, Pope Nicholas IV sent a Franciscan, John of Montecorvino (孟高維諾), on a diplomatic mission to the first Yuan emperor. In 1294, he reached Beijing and was granted permission to live in the capital, make converts and build a church.

In the days before trains and planes, a horse could transverse Eurasia in a few months, yet delays at border crossings, the onset of winter and mud during the rainy season combined to make the trip dangerous and long.

In 1307, Pope Clement V established the archdiocese of Beijing, appointed Montecorvino as archbishop of China and the Far East, and ordained seven Franciscans as bishops to send to China.

In 1370, there were 60,000 Catholics in Beijing, but with no bishop ever succeeding Montecorvino, the Church gradually disappeared.

The new Ming Dynasty (明朝) did not directly persecute either Nestorians or Catholics, yet it was xenophobic and wanted to close China to the dangerous outside world.

Without any bishops, the Catholic presence slowly faded. One village in Shandong (山東) claims to have been Catholic for almost 700 years. Others say it was converted in the 17th century. We have no documentation.

Either way, several hundred faithful lay people are not a viable Church which can be a leaven in the wider society.

The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association can quote this and similar stories from history to drive home their point: Chinese Catholics need bishops to fill empty cathedral chairs and thus the Chinese Church is justified in ordaining men chosen by the government no matter what the Vatican says.

In the 21st century, religious and human rights issues take a backseat to business as usual. Investors say what they are doing by promoting economic growth and the spread of the middle class will improve human rights and result in democracy in the long run – a debatable point.

Governments want to increase trade with China. Some nations issue predictable statements on behalf of this Chinese dissident or that disturbing injustice and, just as predictably, Beijing denies the problem, denounces western interference in China’s internal affairs and points to festering problems in the home country of the accuser.

Promoting freedom of religion in China results in hardline atheists in the western country saying China is better off with only a few religious believers.

All the bad news in recent years about clergy scandals and child abuse might have discouraged western politicians from speaking in defence of Chinese bishops.

Churches in various nations have their own problems, tend to turn inward and are tempted to lose interest in mission outreach. As a result, if Catholics in China hope for major improvements in their situation as a result of outside intervention, their hopes may be in vain.

A long, hard road ahead

Lamentations ends with a sad plea: “Lead us back to you, O Lord, that we may be restored: give us anew such days as we had of old. For now you have indeed rejected us, and in full measure turned your wrath against us” (Lamentations 5:21-22).

Maybe the writer was tempted to begin a sixth chapter on a happy note, something like: “Rejoice! Take comfort! Better days are just around the corner!”

Being inspired, he put his pen down when he did. There is a time to cry and a time to laugh (Ecclessiates 3:4). Other parts of scripture contain words of consolation, but a pep talk does not belong in Lamentations.

The reader might take time to consider the ups and downs of Jewish history over the centuries.

How many centuries will it take to resolve the tension between the Vatican and Beijing? No one can predict the future. Centuries might be the appropriate word.

The Church has existed for almost 2,000 years and we firmly believe it will be on the scene, whether large or small, until the end of the world.

Procedures for electing bishops have varied from time to time and place to place, yet it would be unrealistic for the Chinese government to expect the Vatican to rewrite Canon 1382 or other rules to satisfy the Patriotic Association.

China has seen enormous changes since churches, temples and mosques began to reopen at the end of the 1970s. Yet the government is still in the business of supervising and heavily regulating religion.

It would be unrealistic for Catholics inside or outside the country to expect a repeal of the last sentence of Article 36 of the current (1982) constitution: “Religious organisations and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”

Marxists believe the human race is still in its childhood and the world will be here tens of thousands of years from now.

They may be right. Time will tell. The Communist Party may be the governing party of China 100 or 200 years from now. Time will tell.

For Catholics inside and outside mainland China, and for people anywhere who uphold freedom of conscience and religion, this is no time to laugh or to speak words of false optimism.

Prayer, fasting and patient faith that God will be with the Chinese people in the coming centuries will all do more good than minimising the hard demands of being, as Pope John Paul II said, “truly Catholic and authentically Chinese.”