Transfers of priests highlight corruption in China Church

Bishops given too much power to decide who goes where, meaning new postings can be a reward or punishment

Father John Lo 
February 25, 2019

Five bishops kneel during an ordination ceremony presided over by the head of the official Chinese Catholic Bishops College, Liu Yuanren, at a church in central Beijing, in this January 2000 file photo. The ordination was conducted despite the Vatican registering disappointment at the move. (Photo by AFP)

The Church in China has taken much flak of late for being riddled with problems as more clerics fall prey to greed.

These range from prelates selling church property without proper authorization and embezzling vast sums of money to having affairs with women and church officials working too closely with the state.

More recently, it has emerged that bishops in China are observing a policy of transferring “obedient” priests, who follow them slavishly and unquestioningly, to the more affluent parishes.

Greater affluence means more resources to work with, which makes formation and preaching easier, but it also opens the window to graft as the transferred priests can find surreptitious ways of bumping up their income.

On the flip side, bishops are transferring priests who do not follow their every word, or who they just don’t like, to poorer and more remote parishes as a kind of punishment or retaliation.

This phenomenon, especially in parishes or dioceses that lack a standardized system of management, is more common because bishops in China have almost unfettered power. Their word is sacrosanct, which results in a dangerous lack of balance and is grossly unfair.

The selling of religious property, the sexual liaisons and the other corrupt practices of such high-ranking clergymen could even result in a systematic breakdown as their subordinate priests refuse to cooperate with them.

This would obviously have a harmful impact on the parishes and very likely cause their pastoral work to deteriorate.

In other parishes in China, priests cannot be transferred until a certain number of years have passed.

In such cases where relations between the bishop and priest or priests are tense, this makes the situation even worse as the gap between them grows ever larger, and the bond of brotherhood ever weaker.

Meanwhile, I have heard stories of some priests who refuse to cooperate with their bishop when the latter requests they be transferred.

This is usually because the priest has got used to living in a more affluent parish and does not want to leave or they have established strong personal connections in the parish that they are unwilling to surrender.

This untrammelled selfishness is dangerous and harmful to the Church.

Those guilty of harboring this kind of attitude seek enjoyment and forget their vocation; or perhaps their reason for joining the priesthood in the first place was not to serve God as much as to wring as many personal benefits out of the position as possible.

I have heard of other priests who loathed the idea of being transferred so much they asked the government to intervene in church affairs — effectively “selling out” their brothers in the process.

This is especially prevalent in situations where underground church communities go to war with state-sanctioned church communities over who claims legitimate jurisdiction over which parish.

As such complaints can help to eradicate those underground communities, the state is usually more than happy to step in and adjudicate.

Of course, some priests cooperate with their transfer orders despite whatever grievances they may have about being on the losing end of such an unfair deal.

They accept their fate in order to fulfill their vow of submission and carry on their pastoral work regardless of these challenging circumstances.

The challenges the Church is facing are absolutely related to secularization because this causes the quality of the clergy to deteriorate. Bishops and priests alike are duty-bound to serve the Church and also bring it closer to God.

However, at the dictate of a corrupt Chinese government, clerics succumb to the secular world and become running dogs of the regime in the pursuit of money and power, leaving their pastoral work in a terrible mess.

Parishes should be well structured and have a priestly advisory council to discuss transfers, rather than leaving such important matters purely to the discretion of the local bishop.

Father John Lo is a Catholic priest in China

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