Whenever I blog on Orthodox issues, my readership always goes through the roof. The division between the eastern and western churches is a tragedy of immense proportions, the healing of which is to be earnestly sought.
But there are also divisions within the Western church. I am not referring to Protestantism, which strictly speaking is not a schism from the Catholic point of view, partly because the two groups do not share the same Catholic faith, but more significantly because it is not a schism at the level of the episcopal hierarchy, which has direct consequences for the ecclesial reality of the communities concerned. Those hierarchical schisms which do exist in the Western are actually few and quite small (the Catholic Church has done a marvellous job of maintaining its unity through a combination of firm adherence to the Truth and diplomacy), but are nevertheless taken very seriously by the Holy See. Among these are the Levebrists (Society of St Pius X) and the more recent schismatic circus created by Archbishop Malingo.
But the greatest schism in the “Western” Church is not in the West at all but in the Far East: the division between the Chinese underground Church loyal to The Holy See and the “Official Church” directed by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association loyal to the Communist government in Beijing.
The Official Church maintains valid sacraments, and much of the discipline and form of the Catholic faith. In fact, in many cases there may be said to be a kind of communion between the Official Church and the Underground Church. Many of the bishops of the Official Church have expressed desire for closer ties with the Holy See, and the Vatican and the Underground Church continue to regard the people and bishops of the Official Church as brothers and sisters in Christ.
But while the relationship between these two communities was once much sharper than it is now, the division persists — in ways that sometimes create some confusion. In recent years, The Patriotic Association has tended to seek Vatican approval for the ordination of its bishops. But this tendency is erratic, and recently there has been a spate of episcopal ordinations without Vatican approval.
Asia News reports that there is a “sub secreto” meeting taking place in the Vatican today, in which the Pope is meeting with the number of prelates, including Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong, one of his auxiliaries, the Bishop of Macau, and Cardinal Shan, emeritus Bishop of Kaohsiung in Taiwan. “Sub Secreto” means that what is discussed that the meeting is secret, not the meeting itself. But the topic is clear: the situation of the Church in China and relations between the Holy See and the Chinese government.
And this is the nub of the matter: while the search for unity between the underground Church and the “official” Church in China is truly an ecumenical concern, the issue is really one of diplomacy between one state (the Holy See) and another (the Chinese Goverment). For while the two Churches are almost indistinguishable in matters of faith and order, they answer to two very different authorities, whose respective ideologies are so opposed that it would be hard to imagine a greater contrast.
There are interesting insights in the Asia News article. The writer refers to the Underground and Official Churches as “two branches of the Church…which have, over the past ten years, become ever more reconciled. Certain Catholics and bishops of China have even asked that the Pope issue a letter on the unity of the Church in China.” Nevertheless, at the same time, “the Patriotic Association statute forsees the creation of a national and independant Church, separate from Rome.”
And so the greatest schism in the Western church, while being an ecumenical concern, continues falls under the category of political diplomacy. Well, the Vatican has had lots of practice at that. But sooner or later, someone has to give way, and I suspect it won’t be the Pope.