Often the institutional church appears to Catholics today like a great immobile rock, indifferent to the signs of the times and the needs of its members. But once in a while there's an intriguing sign of motion. I observed such a sign, a hopeful one, during a recent trip to China.
When Mao Tse Tung achieved power there in the late 1940s, he did not ban religion. He announced that religious organizations might continue, but they must be entirely self-governing. This meant they could not depend on or have any relationship with a non-Chinese government or organization.
This was especially bad news for Catholics who, by definition, have a very strong relationship with the pope in Rome. Many Catholics fled the country, took their religion underground, were thrown in prison or killed. However, others believed the church could continue above ground despite Communist control. So some Chinese bishops, without Vatican approval, consecrated others as bishops, who in turn ordained priests for the Chinese church.
Thus was born an above-ground segment of the Catholic church technically independent of papal control. The Vatican protested, called this new situation a schism, and condemned Catholics who participated in it. Yet it grew under the umbrella of "The Catholic Patriotic Association." During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, all religion was banned : patriotic or otherwise; but when the ban was relaxed in the 1980s, old bishops returned to their posts and new bishops were consecrated : again without Vatican involvement.
In many cases these new bishops have been selected with input from local priests, sisters, laity and of course Chinese government officials. We observed the church is flourishing in China. Young women are entering religious life in record numbers, and young men are flocking to the seminaries. Churches and other religious buildings are being built or remodeled. In some respects, the Chinese church of the 2000s looks like the U.S. church in the 1950s.
What does Rome think of this strange state of affairs? No talk of schism, no excommunications. Instead, we learned, the Vatican is quietly and informally notifying the bishops in many dioceses : bishops consecrated and appointed without any Roman oversight : that the Holy Father recognizes them as legitimate and valid leaders of their dioceses and gives them and their flocks his blessing!
As news of this shifts spreads, many of the intrepid underground faithful are emerging from hiding and participating in the open church. One Chinese bishop told me the church has always had to accommodate to unfriendly governments. Catholics respect the pope's authority, he said, and always have; they just can't talk or write about it openly.
Clearly, Rome has accommodated. The rock has moved. You have to ask: if it can happen in the East, why not the West?