China and the Vatican avoid a standoff over new bishop

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The selection of the Reverend Joseph Li Shan, who is to be installed as the Roman Catholic bishop of Beijing on Friday, was no surprise to those who closely follow religious affairs in China. Li, 42, who rose steadily through a Chinese Catholic clergy that was far reduced by the Cultural Revolution and was slowly rebuilt as the Chinese government relaxed its attitudes toward officially recognized organized religions, has been in the wings for some time.

Less certain has been the question of how Beijing and the Vatican, whose relations have suffered numerous ups and downs, would come to terms over an appointment that for both parties involves difficulties in ceding authority and large amounts of face.

Whether in Beijing or in Rome, no observers are describing Li’s elevation as a fundamental breakthrough in relations, but many voices could be heard saying that the discreet way the appointment has been handled and, above all, the avoidance of any open dispute bodes well for future relations.

“This is good news and it will pave the way for more interaction between the two sides in the future,” said Yan Kejia, a researcher at the Religion Institute of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “The Vatican’s attitude toward Li Shan’s appointment shows that the door is open, even if relations have not been normalized.”

He was echoed by the Reverend Bernardo Cevellera, editor of Asia News, a publication that covers religious matters and maintains close ties to the Vatican.

“This is a very good sign of starting a dialogue,” he agreed.

The appointment of Li, who was the head of Beijing’s East Church and is a graduate of the Beijing Catholic Seminary, was the result of a delicate back and forth between China and the Vatican whose details neither side is eager to publicize or acknowledge.

According to several observers, this has meant the Vatican’s signaling the identities of a number of Chinese Catholics with whom it is comfortable and Beijing’s choosing a bishop from among them. A variation on this process might have involved Beijing’s producing a list of candidates with the Vatican subsequently signaling its approval. Officials on neither side will say.

As recently as June 30, in a letter to the Chinese authorities, Pope Benedict XVI said the Vatican “would desire to be completely free to appoint bishops.”

In recent weeks, though, the Vatican has quietly signaled that this ordination has its approval and it has notably not spoken out against it, as has been the case in past ordinations without the pope’s consent.

Liu Bainian, the deputy chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a government-affiliated group that oversees the Chinese Catholic Church, declined to confirm the back and forth. “The Vatican has agreed with the results of our election of bishops before, and we thought those were moves in a good direction. How they see Li Shan is their business, but it is our hope they continue walking a good direction.”

That such machinations are required is a reflection of a long history of suspicion toward foreign religious authority in China, fueled in part by what most Chinese see as their country’s humiliating subjugation by Western powers during the last two centuries.

Since the Communist revolution in 1949, the state has maintained strict control over all rights of association, meaning that every group must organize under the aegis of the Communist Party. Restrictions like this have been used to maintain tight control over all religious activities in China.

The Chinese state, in effect, runs all above-ground churches in China, as well as Buddhist temples, mosques and other recognized places of worship. China has also maintained tight control over clerical appointments. Beijing’s new bishop, Li, for example, is a representative in the Beijing People’s Congress, or local assembly, undoubtedly bolstering his credentials in the government’s eyes.

At its heart, the difficulty over nominations like Li’s lies with the fact that historically, both parties, the Vatican and Beijing, claim this authority. But as the two sides have positioned themselves around this issue, other interests have also come into play.

As Chinese society has gradually liberalized, many among China’s officially estimated five million Catholics – as well as perhaps seven million underground Catholics by some estimates – have yearned for normalized relations with the Vatican and with Roman Catholics everywhere.

The Chinese government, for its part, would like to see Rome, which recognizes Taiwan, drop its relations with what Beijing sees as a renegade province. The Vatican, meanwhile, would like to promote greater religious freedom in China, easing, among other things, tight limits on religious education.

For Beijing, hovering in the background, beyond its relations with the Vatican, are relations with other religions, both officially recognized and not. China’s Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists and others could be expected to seek whatever expanded freedoms or autonomy will be enjoyed by Catholics.

“China has openly said that it does not have a timetable to build diplomatic ties with the Vatican, but it has also said that such ties are not impossible,” said Kung Lap Yan, an associate professor of cultural and religious studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “China needs the Vatican to leverage Taiwan, to isolate it by establishing relations.

“But it also wary of getting too close to the Vatican, which would give the Vatican more power and influence over China.”

Howard W. French reported from Shanghai, Ian Fisher from Rome.

in International Herald Tribune