A recent image of Father Michael Kelly SJ. (ucanews photo)
Moral outrage and high emotion are a potent cocktail. Such is what is reverberating around the world right now about the Vatican's moves to replace two bishops in China.
The events have triggered reports and comments in the Catholic media and even in such apparently irreligious publications as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Before we start interpreting and analyzing and assessing what is going on, we need to get a few things clear and they are the facts:
Retired bishop of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun seems to claim that doing what the Vatican has done is a cowardly cowering before the communist government of the Peoples Republic of China, the abandonment of faithful Catholics and rewarding renegades and people excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
By changing bishops in two dioceses, what the Vatican is doing with the appointment of two previously excommunicated bishops is not novel. It has happened this way in China since the 1980s. As the Catholic Church recovered from all that the communist victory in 1949 and later the Cultural Revolution from 1966 inflicted on it, the rebuilding of the church in the 1980s was a haphazard affair.
Bishops were elected locally throughout the country in the open churches operating with government approval. In countless instances, these were not episcopal candidates approved by Rome. But later and across the country and across the decades, private agreements between these bishops and Rome were reached.
But as bishops appointed irregularly and often ordained by other bishops who were similarly appointed without Vatican approval, they were formally speaking automatically excommunicated for these procedures.
But no great issue was made of this and the miscreant bishops and the Vatican reached compromise solutions to recognize appointments and just get on with redeveloping dioceses and the church's life.
In parallel from the 1980s and until very recently, the Vatican followed a procedure where it appointed "underground bishops," so suspicious was it of anyone — ordinary Catholic, cleric, religious or bishop — who cooperated with the openly recognized and registered Catholic communities. This created a circumstance that has now come back to bite the Vatican and is vividly instance in the present kerfuffle.
What is happening right now is no way unprecedented in recent Catholic history in China. The sharp edge today, as emphasized by Cardinal Zen, is that these latterly recognized bishops are being installed in dioceses where there is an already existing "underground bishop" — someone nominated, appointed and ordained with Rome's specific authorization.
The movement of bishops into and out of dioceses — either through mandatory retirement at 75 or to meet needs in another diocese — is an administrative commonplace throughout the Catholic Church.
And yes, sometimes the Vatican gets those moves profoundly wrong. I was very close to one brutal and unjust instance when an Australian bishop was removed in 2011 from the country diocese of Toowoomba in Australia when Bishop Bill Morris was forced to relinquish his diocese at the explicit urging of three cardinals.
Those cardinals operated in complete violation of the bishop's natural rights or any appreciation of the requirements of due process. Moreover, they shifted ground on why he should be removed just to make sure he was removed. It was a disgraceful episode.
So, yes, the process can be abused by the Vatican. But there is no doubt that the placement and removal of bishops is a power that rests with the pope who exercises that power.
But the issues in China go deeper than a consideration of the legitimacy of papal actions. The allegation is that these changes put the church in the hands of the Chinese government whose agents are those to be newly appointed. And they are "excommunicants" and not worthy of the positions entrusted to them.
This assertion by Cardinal Zen and others has an almost identical precedent in the life of the church 1,600 years ago. The church was all but divided it in North Africa in the time of St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354 – 430), the theological genius of late antiquity. The issue was the "Donatist Controversy."
In the last full flourish of the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire and before Christianity became the religion of the Empire under Constantine, there had been some Christians who preferred physical survival to martyrdom. When the persecution ceased, the question became what to do with those Christians — lay people and clerics — who had gone "soft" and compromised with the Imperial authorities?
Augustine's proposal, which prevailed, was that ministry and standing in the church was not dependent on the sanctity of the office holder, that the exercise of ministry was God's work through unworthy means — weak human beings.
Switch to China today — an authoritarian, one party state determined to persecute any ideological variant it deems a threat to its total control of everything in the social and political life of the nation.
The risk really isn't that the church will move ever more under the government's control. It already is completely — whether in the open or "underground" church. The risk in the moves now being made by the Vatican is that they will split the church in China deeply — those who accept that the Communist Party really does run China and those who believe only stubborn resistance is the way to go.
I have a cordial and friendly personal relationship with Cardinal Zen. He is an engaging, witty and sometimes very funny person to be with. But his answer to this question about the church in China at least has been completely consistent for at least two decades and it comes down to the belief that the only real Catholic in China is or should prepare to be a martyr.
Over at least two decades, in the course of which he has not visited China at all, he has maintained that the only way to deal with those running the country and therefore, in a communist society, supervising the Catholic community is to have nothing to do with them.
That view is one that can be sustained from the comfortable and secure distance of Hong Kong where Cardinal Zen lives. It's an unaffordable luxury in the Peoples Republic of China.
And that is where the basic differences lie in the approach to the life of the church in China. But what Cardinal Zen has yet to answer is this question: What do you propose should be done for the millions of Catholics who have to live daily with the Communist Party measuring your every heartbeat?
There are two approaches to any set of negotiations: Walk away from the table and suspend discussions or stay at the table and negotiate the best terms you can.
Cardinal Zen is and always has been for walking away and leaving Catholics in China in all their variety to their own devices. Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and people at the Vatican prefer to remain at the table.
Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com and based in Thailand.