A Roman Catholic missionary expert on China has appealed to the Vatican to reconsider the status of 42 bishops in mainland China who were consecrated without Vatican consent after the Communist takeover in 1949.
Father Angelo Lazzarotto, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, implied that clarification of the bishops' status could be a first step for the Church toward reopening relations with the People's Republic.
Father Lazzarotto's call came in an article on the Chinese Catholic Church in the Milan-based magazine Mondo e Missione (World and Mission).
The Chinese Communists, under the leadership of the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung, launched a ruthless persecution of the Church as soon as they came into power. Among its results were the expulsion of more than 5,000 foreign missionaries; the arrest, imprisonment, and harassment of all native clergy and religious, and the forced closing of 3,932 schools, 216 hospitals, 781 dispensaries, 254 orphanages, 29 printing presses and 55 periodicals.
Catholic Action groups were suppressed for "counter-revolutionary activities" and "crimes against the new China." All missionary work and pastoral activity was outlawed.
In July, 1957, the government formally established a Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics. A year later, Peking set up the nucleus of what it hoped might become the hierarchy of schismatic Chinese Church, by "electing" 26 bishops and having them consecrated validly but illicitly between April 13, 1958, and Nov. 15, 1959, without the permission or approval of the Holy See.
By Jan. 21, 1962, a total of 42 bishops had been consecrated in this manner. These bishops are reported to have ordained a number of priests.
According to Father Lazzarotto, the question of the status of these bishops "have never been clarified officially." He said it was "urgent" that "this burning issue be faced and studied.
"We know that these very bishops, backed by the Communist authorities in the years 1958-62, were reduced to a marginal status a decade ago and blocked from exercising their functions freely in a way no less harsh than were the few legitimate priests who have survived," Father Lazzarotto said.
He contended that the split of the Chinese Church caused by the illicitly ordained bishops was "the critical issue which is wasting away the strength of the faithful to resist. It is an impasse from which the Chinese Catholics will never be able to escape through their own efforts."
Pointing out that all the bishops were validly consecrated, the former Hong Kong missionary stated: "Today the shadow of suspicion is hanging on a portion of the Chinese Church and hierarchy, along with the silent accusation of (the bishops) being responsible for serving as accomplices in the enslavement of the Church, or for an attempted schism."
According to Father Lazzarotto, "illicitly" ordained priests "are frequently encountered by western visitors to Peking."
Doubts about the priests' canonical status and alleged pro-Communist leanings are a source of worry to European diplomats and others wishing to attend mass in the city, he said.