Shared ambition dashes hopes for Sino-Vatican ties

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 May, 2006, 12:00am

The Holy See severely criticised the recent ordination of two bishops on the mainland, hinting at their possible excommunication. Beijing simply repeated its official jargon that China respects religion but will not tolerate foreign interference in its internal affairs. The development is a blow to hopes for diplomatic relations in the near future. Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun predicted these would be established before the Beijing Olympics in 2008. His Eminence must now be feeling less optimistic.

Considering the fundamental values of the Vatican and China, establishing diplomatic ties is almost a mission impossible. Beijing's concern is for stability and economic development; the Vatican's is for religion and democracy. Apart from these differences, they both have the same ambition: control. Beijing would like to maintain political control over every aspect of China, including the church, while the Vatican is keen to preserve its influence over branches of the church worldwide. One of the most effective ways to do this is by strictly controlling the ordination of bishops.

To establish diplomatic relations, one or other party has to give up the right to ordination - in other words, to give up control. All in all, one should not be too optimistic for the future of Sino-Vatican relations.


Your correspondent P.A. Crush is mistaken in connecting the Holy See's existence as an internationally recognised sovereign entity with the Lateran Treaty of 1929 ('Vatican City should withdraw from politics', May 2). The Holy See's existence as a sovereign entity predates that of the nation states of Europe, and will no doubt outlive them. Even from 1870 to 1929, when it had no territory, it sent ambassadors to, and received them from, the powers of Europe.

Its status does not depend on its territory. It has been the model for other non-territorial sovereign entities such as the International Red Cross, the League of Nations, the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. This status has enabled it, for example, to help prisoners of war, and to emphasise the independence of the spiritual dimension.

Societies exhibit several ways of co-existence between the temporal and the spiritual, or between state and church. There is the communist way, of the state assuming both roles; the way of some Muslim societies, where the state is swallowed by the mosque; and the traditional western way, based on the Christian teaching of the separate roles of God and Caesar. This latter system will result in tension from time to time. However, it is a creative tension, and much preferable to the alternatives.


Recent events indicate that the mainland Catholic Church is clearly not in awe of its parent body in Rome. This is great. For its next appointment to the bishopric, it should seriously consider elevating a woman. Such a move would go a long way to helping women play a fuller role in this powerful global organisation. Since its inception 1,700 years ago, the church has treated its female brethren as second-class citizens. Future historians might look upon such an action very favourably.

JASON ALI, Sheung Wan