The appointment of bishops in the Roman Catholic Church is a lengthy affair that can, at times, take a year or more. The papal nuncio, who is the Pope’s ambassador, consults with bishops, priests, and sometimes laypeople to consider who might be best suited to serve as a bishop. Those who are consulted are generally required to keep everything strictly confidential. After this process is completed, the nuncio submits the list of names to the Congregation of Bishops in Rome. That congregation goes through the dossiers and finally arrives at a list of three possible candidates. The Pope is free to accept any one of the candidates, reject all of the candidates, or name another candidate of his choosing. Pope John Paul II was known to have chosen some candidates that others might not have chosen. He picked Bishop John J. O’Connor, a bishop in Scranton, Pennsylvania who had run a diocese for less than a year to serve as Archbishop of New York. It proved to be a brilliant choice, as was his choice of Bishop Jean-Marie Lustiger to serve as Archbishop of Paris. Cardinal Lustiger’s appointment was controversial, as he was a convert from Judaism and there was concern that it would harm relations with the Jewish community.
When the People’s Republic of China enters into the equation, the process is even more difficult. The Holy See does not have diplomatic relations with Beijing. Currently, they have diplomatic relations with the other China, namely the Republic of China which is headquartered on Taiwan. While religious freedom has become more widespread in China, the Chinese government insists on controlling the exercise of religion in their country. The State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) is headed by a Communist Party member. Seeing as the Communist Party requires atheism for membership, atheists currently oversee religious practice in China. The currently approved religions are Buddhism, Catholicism, Christianity (they distinguish Catholicism from Protestant Christianity), Confucianism, Daoism, and Islam. In addition to SARA, there are other associations which all recognized religions are required to belong to. These associations assist SARA in regulating the control of religion in China today.
For Catholics to be recognized and to be able to openly profess their faith, they must belong to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (中國天主敎愛國會). The patriotic association works with SARA to regulate the practice of Catholicism in the country. In fact, it even excercises oversight over the bishop’s conference, a body which the Vatican refuses to recognize for this and other reasons. In the 1950s, several Chinese bishops, under pressure from the Communist government, illicitly ordained several bishops. The response of Pope Pius XII was to excommunicate both those ordained and those who ordained them. In fact, modifications were made to the Church’s Canon Law to make ordaining a bishop without papal approval an excommunicable offense. In 1988, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a traditionalist bishop opposed to the liturgical and theological reforms of the Second Vatican Council, ordained four bishops without papal approval. He, the four bishops, and Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer who took part in the ordinations were immediately excommunicated by order of Pope John Paul II.
Relations between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China have warmed slightly since the days of Mao. The Chinese government is willing to grant diplomatic relations to the Holy See on the condition that they sever diplomatic relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan and that they not interfere with the selection of bishops. While the Vatican is indeed willing to move the nunciature to Beijing, they are not willing to grant the Chinese government the right to pick bishops for the Catholic faithful. China sees this as a foreign power interfering in China’s internal affairs. In China, all bishops, all priests, all Protestant ministers, all Buddhist monks, and so forth must be approved by the state authorities. Some of these governmentally approved religious leaders have been notoriously cozy with the Communist government. The late Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan, former Bishop of Beijing was an example. Bishop Fu was a fierce critic of the Vatican and very close to the Communists. He even served as Vice-President of China’s highest legislative body, the National People’s Congress and was a regular fixture on the Chinese People’s Consultative Congress. While many of his colleagues served lengthy prison sentences, Bishop Fu was basically left alone. He survived the Cultural Revolution more or less unscathed. His successor, Bishop Joseph Li Shan, enjoys Vatican and SARA approval. Most of the Chinese bishops enjoy both the approval of SARA and the Holy See. A new Chinese bishop is set to be ordained in Yebin, Sichuan Province soon. Bishop-elect Peter Luo Xuegang will be ordained on November 30.
Being a bishop in the Catholic Church is difficult enough. Being a Catholic bishop in China is like lying on a bed of nails. Either you give in on your principles and enjoy all the accolades of the government, or you stick to your principles and enjoy a lifetime of harassment if not imprisonment. As in Mexico during the anti-clerical period, some Chinese government officials are reasonable and somewhat tolerant. Others in other provinces are not so. The illicit ordinations in the 1950s are by no means the only time the Chinese government has forced bishops against their will to ordain other bishops. It happened this past summer, as a matter of fact. The head of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and Vice-President of the Bishop’s Conference of the Catholic Church in China (中國天主敎主敎團), Bishop Paul Pei Junmin, was suspended from these offices by the Chinese government for failing to show up for the illicit ordinations this past summer and placed under house arrest.