Are the Vatican and the Communist Party of China heading towards an historic breakthrough after decades of acrimony?
We’ll get a hint Wednesday when a Catholic church in Sichuan province is supposed to ordain a new bishop, Father Peter Luo Xuegang. He has the rare distinction of being acceptable to the powers-that-be in both Vatican City and Beijing.
But, as is often the case when it comes to the dealings of two of the most opaque and authoritarian organizations on the planet, the details will be crucial. Whether or not Father Peter becomes a Vatican-recognized bishop will depend on what part another Chinese man of the cloth plays in the ceremony.
Paul Lei Shiyin, who is also from Sichuan, was one of two bishops ordained in June by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, without approval from Rome. The Vatican excommunicated them both a week later.
( The CPCA is the only Catholic organization recognized by the Chinese government. Founded in 1957 by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, it now has some six million members, including 170 of its own bishops. Millions more Christians, many of them devout Roman Catholics, worship in independent and unrecognized “house churches.”)
Church experts say that if Father Lei plays a formal role in the ceremony, it might render the ordination illegitimate in the eyes of the Vatican and send relations back to square one. “He is forbidden according to the papal statement earlier in the year from carrying out any ministry or office so it would be a scandal if he joins as a co-consecrating bishop or a principal consecrator,” Anthony Lam, a researcher at the Roman Catholic church-affiliated Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, told the Associated Press.
The same article suggests that China is expected to insist on Father Lei’s participation, in order to give the ceremony a “patriotic” feel. In other words, brace for the old and predictable standoff.
Indeed, today’s edition of the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times newspaper contains an article headlined “Impasse remains for Vatican ties” No mention is made of Wednesday’s scheduled ordination ceremony, but the article notes that while the Vatican is believed to be willing to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan as part of a wider deal, “the power to ordain bishops remains a sticking point.”
The Vatican refuses to change its bishop selection process for China, while the Global Times says Beijing “maintains its stance of sovereignty and self-governance on Catholicism.”
In other words, the Communist Party remains highly uncomfortable with having citizens who recognize authorities – the Vatican, the Pope, God – higher than the Standing Committee of the Politburo. And the Vatican isn’t willing to give the Politburo a say in matters it believes are divine.