China's Catholics Caught Between Church, State

The Hengshui diocesan church in northern China's Hebei province. i

The Hengshui diocesan church in northern China's Hebei province is thriving. Every Easter, Bishop Peter Feng and his priests baptize hundreds of new converts. And they have established community chapels, medical clinics and summer schools. Anthony Kuhn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Kuhn, NPR
The Hengshui diocesan church in northern China's Hebei province.

The Hengshui diocesan church in northern China's Hebei province is thriving. Every Easter, Bishop Peter Feng and his priests baptize hundreds of new converts. And they have established community chapels, medical clinics and summer schools.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR
Bishop Peter Feng presides at Sunday Mass in the Hengshui diocesan church. i

Bishop Peter Feng presides at Sunday Mass in the Hengshui diocesan church. Anthony Kuhn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Kuhn, NPR
Bishop Peter Feng presides at Sunday Mass in the Hengshui diocesan church.

Bishop Peter Feng presides at Sunday Mass in the Hengshui diocesan church.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR
Bishop Feng and a local priest distribute the Eucharist. i

Bishop Feng (in purple) and a local priest distribute the Eucharist. Most of the congregation members at the Hengshui diocesan church are farmers. Anthony Kuhn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Kuhn, NPR
Bishop Feng and a local priest distribute the Eucharist.

Bishop Feng (in purple) and a local priest distribute the Eucharist. Most of the congregation members at the Hengshui diocesan church are farmers.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR

Will the Vatican establish diplomatic relations with China? Some observers note reconciliation under way between the communist power's official Catholic church — established by Beijing's political leaders — and an underground church loyal to the pope.

The Vatican has indicated a willingness to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the mainland. But China's 12 million Catholics are often still caught between the church and the state.

That division has proved difficult in many places, including the Hengshui diocese in North China's Hebei province.

An Austrian Jesuit missionary became the first Bishop of Hengshui in 1947. Two years later, the Communist Party came to power. It never established diplomatic ties with the Vatican, and expelled foreign missionaries in the 1950s. Over the next two decades of Maoist political mayhem, churches in Hengshui were destroyed and bishops were imprisoned.

Bishop Peter Feng studied theology in Beijing, the Philippines and Belgium. He was auxiliary bishop in 2002 when the main bishop was incapacitated by a stroke. He recalls how local church members met to choose a replacement.

"We picked three candidates and submitted the results to the Holy See. We also gave them to the official church in Beijing. My case was special because Rome approved my ordination before Beijing, and this delayed the matter."

After two years, Beijing finally approved Feng's ordination. Priests and laity gathered for a mass to celebrate the event, and to read an edict from the pope confirming Feng's new post. But official priests from Beijing warned Feng not to read it.

The clerics argued for eight hours as congregation members nervously prayed their rosaries in the churchyard. As a compromise, Feng says, the official priests ducked out as the edict was read in church, and the mass was held later at the county government office.

"It was difficult for me," Feng says. "As a bishop who was about to be ordained, I had to consider serving my congregation. But I also knew I would need the government's cooperation in future. I felt stuck in the middle."

To reassure his congregation, Feng has displayed a photo in his office of his meeting with Pope John Paul II.

Congregation member Zhang Yanhua says that it's important to her that her bishop is recognized by the pope. "In our church," she says, "the bishops obey the pope, the priests obey the bishops, and we congregation members obey the priests."

As in Feng's case, the Vatican also now recognizes most of the bishops recognized by Beijing. But neither side claims to be cooperating with the other.

Liu Bainian, vice head of the government-sanctioned church, or Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, says Rome has "changed its old ways." He calls it a "good sign" that the church has recognized some of the bishops elected by the official church. "But because China and the Vatican have no diplomatic relations, there can be no tacit agreement on the issue of bishops," he says.

In its bid to unify China's Catholic Church, the Vatican has also stopped replacing aging underground bishops in key dioceses. Underground bishops are now in the minority, and many of them are under some form of arrest.

Anthony Lam, a researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Center, a Hong Kong Catholic group, says no current leader in the Chinese government has the political clout to decide to establish ties with Rome.

"You know you have to wait for a very strong person, a powerful person who has no challenge from anybody in China and he can make that final decision," Lam says, "because the relationship with the Vatican is not only political but also ideological."

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