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Eire, China and damage control

Why should Catholics in China be forced to defer to the Vatican when it comes to choosing their bishops?

  • Father William Grimm
  • Japan
  • July 26, 2011
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When I heard that the Vatican had recalled its ambassador to Ireland, I recalled the cry, "This means war!" in the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup and envisioned the Swiss Guard storming ashore in County Kerry.

It was a bit of a disappointment to read that the recall simply meant that the nuncio was going to Rome to discuss damage control following an Irish government report that said the Vatican had been "entirely unhelpful" in dealing with child abuse. The Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, went further, saying the report "exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago."

The prime minister even diagnosed the Vatican’s problem, saying: "The Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day."

No one who loves the Church enough to pay honest attention to what goes on in Rome would disagree with the assessment of the prime minister who is himself, according to reports, a devoted Catholic.

Though combat on the shores of Kerry is unlikely, another shot from Ireland across the Vatican’s bow gives cause for reflection. Speaking on Irish radio, a retired seminary professor of moral theology and one-time student of Pope Benedict called for the resignation of every Irish bishop appointed before 2003. He said that the Irish Church has been "without any leadership effectively for the last 15 years."

Once upon a time, people might look at a Church and ask, "Why do they choose such men to be their bishops?" Nowadays, the answer is simple. They don’t. It has been centuries since Rome removed the choice of bishops from local Church control. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine were elected by their people. The bishops of Ireland were appointed by the Vatican, specifically by Pope John Paul II.

Some time ago, bishops in European countries such as France and Spain were de facto appointed by the government or a king. The appointments had more to do with royal policy than with the needs of the Church. Rome went along with the choices in order to maintain the appearance of making appointments, and sometimes because the kings’ armies were bigger than the pope’s.

Nowadays, the Church in China likewise lives with a government that puts policy before the needs of the local Church. But Chinese leaders at least do not make claims to be "sons of the Church" when they engineer the appointment of bishops, meaning that they are less hypocritical than European royalty of days gone by.

Rome’s response to ordinations of bishops that have not been appointed by the pope has been to fling excommunications China-wards even while not disputing the holiness and competence of the men involved.

But, when it is becoming more and more clear that the Vatican is incapable of and perhaps uninterested in appointing bishops who are pastors to the flock, why should Catholics in China be forced to defer to Rome in this matter? Have government-backed bishops in China shown themselves even less caring of the People of God than the Vatican-appointed bishops of Ireland? No, they seem to be doing a better job in much more difficult circumstances.

So long as local Church leadership throughout the world is appointed by and beholden to a Roman structure notable for "dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and...narcissism" we must expect that the cultures, needs and hopes of the People of God will be of little or no concern to the men appointed as leaders.

It may be that the Catholic Church in China, persecuted in varying degrees by both their government and the Vatican, will find some way to maneuver between both and develop leaders and ways of choosing them that will help the rest of the Church move beyond the sclerotic system that has given us the Irish and the (here fill in the name of your own national Church) bishops.

Father William Grimm is a Tokyo-based priest and publisher of UCA News, and former editor-in-chief of “Katorikku Shimbun,” Japan’s Catholic weekly.

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