Liu Bainian was the youngest among more than 200 Catholic representatives to establish the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) in 1957. The priest from East China's Shandong Province, the birthplace of Confucius, was just 24 then. Today, half a century later, Liu is CCPA's vice-president and outspoken defender of the faith in China.
Talking to China Daily, Liu reflects upon Chinese Catholic society's past in a tone tuned with pious obedience for Christ and wisdom.
"Independent selection and ordination of bishops was the only right path for spreading the Gospel in China." Liu Bainian says. Catholicism had been used as "a tool of imperialism" before the founding of New China in 1949. When the People's Republic of China was established, most of the Chinese people welcomed the new social system, but the Vatican issued an order against socialist China.
"That order placed Catholics on the opposite side of the masses," Liu says. "Through solemn praying, the 241 Catholic representatives reached a consensus that to love one's country is an order from God. We should obey the local customs and social system if we want to spread the Gospel in any country. What's more, the new social system won the support of the masses. And it was further confirmed there was nothing wrong with patriotism."
Catholics in China, therefore, decided to cut economic and political ties with the Vatican, but they continued to follow the same religious beliefs as Catholics elsewhere in the world.
In 1958, China elected two bishops and submitted a report to the Vatican, saying: "The ordinations were for the sole benefit of Catholics in China." The Vatican, however, turned down the request, threatening to excommunicate those who had attended the consecrations.
"The Catholic church in China was shocked to get such a reply from the Vatican," Liu says, because the bishops had been elected to restore and develop the church as fast as possible. So, in order to safeguard the interest of Catholics in China, representatives of priests and believers from 23 provinces decided to ordain the bishops on their own, a practice that is still adhered to.
"The ordination was initially a result of special historical circumstances. Why shouldn't the Vatican consider our special situation?" According to the history of the Catholic Church, a bishop can be selected by believers, appointed by an emperor and consecrated by a neighboring diocese, says Liu. "The practice of the Pope installing a bishop began just about two centuries ago."
The Catholic Church has prospered in China because of its "long-term practice of selecting and ordaining its bishops and managing the churches independently. This is the arrangement of Christ."
China has 5 million Catholics today compared with 2.7 million in 1958, according to CCPA statistics. "The development of the Catholic Church in China in the past 20 years has been greater than that of the 300 years before," Liu said.
In 1980, China had only 33 bishops for its 97 dioceses, and that created a grave situation for the church - according to Catholic tradition, a diocese without a bishop means there is no church. The same year, a national congress of Catholics in China decided to continue selecting and ordaining bishops independently.
China has ordained more than 110 bishops since 1979. Liu says only about 100 of the 1,100 priests China had in 1980 are still alive. "But more than 1,800 young priests are serving in over 6,000 church areas as their successors now. All of them were installed in accordance with the principle (of 1958)."
Official statistics show that by late April this year, 40 of China's 97 dioceses were without bishops and more than 30 bishops were over 80 years old. "The old bishops have to rely on their assistants for diocese work because of their health condition," Liu says.
China has sent more than 200 priests overseas to gather better knowledge and get religious training, and about 100 of them have already returned home, he says. "Reality has proven that the bishops we have selected and ordained are qualified."
The main factor hindering smooth relations between Catholics in China and the Vatican is the appointment of bishops, Liu says. "Catholics in China want to select those with high theoretical achievements and with love for the country and the people, but the Vatican wants those who are opposed to the Communist Party."
Chinese priests should be pious and patriotic, otherwise "the Catholic Church in China will suffer." A Catholic Church in China that has no love for the country will by no means be a promising church, he says.
Priests and the faithful elected the bishops according to democratic election rules and after appraising their qualification. Their theoretical achievements were taken into consideration before the election process even started.
Liu lashes out at suggestions that China should wait to appoint its bishops till diplomatic relations are established with the Vatican. "Diplomatic factors should not be considered a precondition for religious affairs," he says. "We will be sinful before Christ if we don't spread the Gospel."
He reiterates that the Vatican should accept China's two terms if it wants to normalize ties.
"The Vatican must sever 'diplomatic relations' with Taiwan and stop interfering in China's internal affairs if it wants to normalize ties with Beijing."
Cautioning people against accepting the Vatican's opinions on China as the truth, he refers to an incident after the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. After the Pope's death, the Catholic society in China and the government both sent letters of condolences to the Vatican.
Also, the government expressed its wish to send representatives to the funeral if there was no delegation from Taiwan.
"It could have been a turning point in bilateral relations," Liu says. But after the Chinese representatives had already booked their plane tickets, came the news that Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian, too, would attend the funeral.
"That shows explicitly that the fundamental reason for the difficult relations between China and the Vatican is the Vatican's objection to our socialist system," Liu says.
Criticizing the Vatican's interference in China's domestic affairs, he says: "As China's selection of bishops fits into relevant rules and follows the wishes of the Catholic society, why should the Vatican object blindly to our choices simply because they belong to the patriotic association?"
"If Catholics in other countries can follow their governments, it's reasonable for the Catholics in China to cooperate with their government. As a Catholic saying goes: 'Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's," he concludes.
(China Daily 09/06/2007 page11)