Apostasies in the Underground Church
Caused by Papal Letter
Marian T. Horvat
Recently the Catholic underground priests and faithful of the diocese of Baoding in China became aware that their Bishop Francis An Shuxin had joined the Patriotic Association (PA), the government-run “official” church that had always been condemned by the Catholic Church.
A longtime hero of the resistance to the communist PA, Bishop An was imprisoned in 1996 for 10 years by the State police. He was released in July 2006. After he read Benedict’s 2007 letter telling Chinese Catholics to merge, he agreed to accept the PA, a thing he had said he would never do because he could not be unfaithful to Rome and the Holy Father. The government’s Religious Affairs Bureau was adamant that to be officially recognized and free to work, he had to join the Patriotic Church.
So he did. The date of his apostasy is vague, but the news reports that are now being released give the impression that his adhesion to the PA is very recent. Today he is deputy director of the PA and chairman of the Committee on the Affairs of the Church of Baoding (CPCA).
Underground Catholics recently learned of Bishop An's defection to the Patriotic Association
The reaction of faithful
His decision has confused - nay, devastated - the underground Catholic Church. Astonishment, outrage and grief were reported reactions of the faithful. “A disaster for the diocese of Baoding,” lamented one priest. “He has lost all his credibility,” affirmed another. “He is a traitor,“ say others, and “even if he wanted to return, could never be trusted again.” (1)
For decades the Chinese Underground Church has never compromised with the PA. Its Bishops and priests have paid the price of persecution and even their lives for adhesion to Rome. Bishop An’s action stings hard in face of such fidelity.
It would seem that many members of the underground Church consider his action a betrayal of the Vatican. According to news reports, most underground Catholics believe that the orientation the Pope gave in his 2007 Letter is that to merge with the Patriotic Association is “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.”
The apostasy was caused by the Papal Letter
Why would a Bishop – after decades of heroically facing suffering and persecution from Communist authorities in China to remain faithful to the Roman Pontiff - suddenly change his mind and join the Patriotic Association?
The prelate, 60, told his faithful that he became part of the Communist government body “for the good of the Church and the urgent need to evangelize.” As “chairman” of the CPCA, he noted, he could better manage the diocese so the “local Church” could function normally and openly. “You can’t work normally if you don’t get the government’s recognition, as other bishops have found in their dioceses,” he added. (2)
Since he used to strongly condemn these same arguments, the question remains: Why did Bishop An make an about-face and decide to embrace the Communist government?
He admits being “torn” about making the decision, “I refused to join the PA at first after I was released in 2006,” he said. “I changed my mind after reading the Pope’s letter.” (3)
The Patriotic Association celebrates its 50th anniversary with the Communist authorities
He is referring to the 2007 Letter to the Chinese Catholic Church in which Benedict XVI opened the doors for underground bishops to join the State agencies for the sake of "unity.".
Bishop An points out that the letter leaves the decision about joining such agencies to individual bishops, and puts no blame on them for doing so.
In the Compendium the Vatican issued later in order to clarify certain matters causing confusion in the Letter, it also plainly states that the faithful may assist without problem of conscience at the Masses of the Patriotic Association, should they find it convenient to do so. This is to facilitate “a process of spiritual reconciliation” and prepare for an eventual “structural merger of the official and unofficial Catholic communities.” (4)
That is to say, after reading the Letter, Bishop An realized that he could join the Patriotic Association and remain in union with Rome – with the blessing of Benedict XVI. What changed was not the teaching that a Catholic cannot accept another church as a substitute without abandoning his faith. What changed was the position of the Vatican set out in Benedict’s Letter, which opened the door for concessions that up until then were unacceptable and unthinkable.
A bad precedent for others to follow
There is no indication that Bishop An has upset the Vatican by his decision to accept the Patriotic Association. To the contrary, he said he had reported to the Vatican from time to time on the situation of the diocese and received approval from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples for his efforts at reconciliation. (5)
It appears that the majority of the 60 underground priests in the Baoding diocese who were working secretly under his leadership, have refused his direction. Bishop An commented that this group is not cooperating with him because these priests “cannot put away their own thinking” to accept the “new one” to work openly and normally.
Arrests of underground Catholics escalating in Baoding
This, then, is what he is doing – following the “new thinking” of the Papal Letter by leaving the underground Church, merging with Communism for the sake of “unity.”
Bishop An was a very influential and respected bishop – he directed the underground seminary of Baoding until his arrest when the seminary was disbanded. Kwun Ping-hung, an expert in China-Vatican relations based in Hong Kong, said that the Vatican wanted him to lead efforts toward reconciliation and unity between the official church and the underground church in Baoding. (6)
Baoding is the center of anti-communist resistance with the highest concentration of Catholics, most of them in the underground Church. For this reason, the Chinese government has always launched its strongest campaign of arrests of Bishops, priests and the faithful there in an attempt to subdue them. That harsh tactic failed to dim the ardor of the valorous Chinese underground Catholics. Sadly, the Papal Letter may succeed in doing what persecutions and imprisonment could not achieve – ending the anti-communist resistance of faithful Catholics and closing the Underground Church.
Tacit approval from the Vatican
Now the Communist Chinese Church is parading Bishop An as the big fish that accepted the PA – an alleged proof that the government’s religious policy is correct. The only word from the Vatican is its insistence that no pressure was put on Bishop An to enter the “official” church. At the same time, it issues no reprimand or lament for what Bishop An did. To China and the world, it is a tacit approval.
Blessings for bishops who merge...
What will come next? Will Bishop An’s defection lead to others? Will the three other local underground Bishops still in custody and some dozen of recently-arrested priests follow the path of Bishop An and join the Patriotic Church? To this day, underground priests are still being arrested and told they can regain their freedom if they join the PA. Already, two underground priests from the Baoding diocese have decided to join the PA. They were immediately released from prison. (7)
These apostasies are some first bad fruits of Benedict’s Letter, and I fear that there are more to come.
1. “The choice of Msgr. Au Shuxin: disaster for the diocese of Baoding,” Asia News online, November 4, 2009
2. “Chinese bishop joins state agency after reading papal letter on unity, CNS online, November 12, 2009
4. Margaret Gallitzin, Vatican Insists: Chinese Catholics Must Merge, TIA website
5. “Chinese bishop joins state agency after reading papal letter on unity,” op. cit.
6. “The choice of Msgr. Au Shuxin: “a disaster for the diocese of Baoding,” Asia News online, November 4, 2009
7. “Sorrow and debate greet case of Msgr. An Shuxin,” Asia News online, November 4, 200
Posted November 20, 2009
Related Topics of Interest
Benedict Delivers Chinese Underground Catholics to Communism
Vatican Insists: Chinese Catholics Must Merge
A Shameful Silence
Aftermath of the Papal Letter to Chinese Catholics
Has the Pope Forgotten What Communism Is?
Reactions to Benedict’s Letter to China
Anguish and Dismay over Vatican Betrayal
Where is the Catholic Resistance?
|Related Works of Interest
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