Whatever happened to the goal of religious freedom?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 December, 2010, 12:00am

It's disappointing, although perhaps not surprising, that the Catholic Church and the Chinese state are once again in dispute over the right to administer religious affairs on the mainland. The authorities there have never welcomed alternative sources of power competing for influence over their subjects. In turn, the Vatican is also anxious about the religious powers held by the state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. But out of such disputes it was hoped that the ultimate objective of providing ordinary Chinese citizens the right to practice religion freely, as enshrined in the Chinese constitution, would be attained.

The recent unilateral ordination of Joseph Guo Jincai as bishop of the Chengde diocese in Hebei angered the Vatican, which suggests the move damaged what have been improving Sino-Vatican ties. In a statement, the Vatican questioned whether bishops who took part in the ordination ceremony 'were subjected to pressures and restrictions'. It went so far as to threaten Guo with excommunication. In turn, the government accused the Vatican of interfering with the freedom of religious belief.

Clerics have been caught in the middle of the power struggle and are in a quandary over whether to attend a national congress of Catholics - an event opposed by the Vatican on the grounds that the congress subscribes to the belief that officials of the Patriotic Association and the government, rather than bishops, are custodians of religious affairs. The event is turning into a barometer of the loyalties of mainland bishops. Whether clerics decide to attend, or stay away, they will be risking the wrath of either one of their religious authorities.

All of that hardly sounds like a path towards religious freedom, the essence of which is being able to practice a set of beliefs without fear of persecution, and yet this is exactly the situation Catholics on the mainland have been put into.

If the Patriotic Association or the Vatican were more focused on the attainment of religious freedom, the least they would do would be to assure believers that their religious choices will not be met with retribution.