Catholic Church

Time for Vatican and Beijing to tackle domestic objections

Pope and party must deal with vested interests associated with ‘patriotic’ or ‘anti-communist’ Catholic cliques

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 9:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 12:15pm

After months of smooth sailing, talks between Beijing and the Holy See seem to have met some setbacks.

In the past few days, the “godfather” of China’s Catholics, Liu Bainian, gave an interview to the South China Morning Post criticising an essay by the Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong Hon.

Tong had written an article explaining that Beijing and the Holy See were quite close to an agreement. He clarified that the parties were closing in on an agreement on the choice of bishops and on a mechanism for how to officially account for the some 30 Chinese bishops not registered with the mainland’s official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Liu countered that there is still distance on the choice of the bishops and the 30 bishops not in the association were not patriotic and thus not trustworthy for China.

These comments sounded like the mirror image of similar remarks by Tong’s predecessor as bishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, who said in November that an agreement with communist China would “betray Christ”.

In fact, the arguments made by Liu and Zen have both their own merit. Liu stressed that bishops should work for China, while Zen underscored the importance of their service to God. In either case, both China and the Church understood the impact of the Chinese Catholics, which otherwise, because of their numbers, were considered almost insignificant.

Liu fretted about the reasonable concern that Catholics would be a kind of fifth column of foreign imperialism. Zen worried that Chinese Catholics were being detached from the universal Church and losing their true faith.

These perspectives were very important to hold both China and the Church together in very delicate times. But it is not simply that the world has changed, and the Cold War, which spawned these conflicting visions has ended – everything has transformed.

In the past few years, both the Holy See and China came to understand the weight of the argument of the other side. This happened by realising the value of the Chinese Catholics in “their own constituency”, be that China or the Catholic Church.

It started at about the same time both in Beijing and Rome. In 2007, Pope Benedict issued his letter to the Chinese that encouraged Catholics to be patriotic. The same year at the Communist Party’s national congress, then general secretary Hu Jintao praised the role of “religious figures” in helping to establish a harmonious society.

More recently President Xi Jinping launched his “One Belt, One Road” initiative to revive the ancient Silk Road, which was the trail of communication and trade between the old Chinese empire and Italy, the seat of the pope. Furthermore, in the past few years, the Chinese leadership has realised the Catholic issue is not simply a domestic question. The Holy See is the super soft power, and thus if Beijing wants to have a global role, it can’t ignore the Vatican.

In parallel, Pope Francis further tuned up the “foreign policy” of the Vatican. He argued that the foreign mission of the Holy See is to help the good of the people of each country, and the good of the people of each country is the good of the world and the glory of God, and vice versa, as he also argued in his interview on China last year.

The interview showed the Pope is concerned about the Chinese people and China’s rise in the world, not simply about the Chinese Catholics. Similarly, the Chinese leadership is aware of the Vatican’s geopolitical influence and clout, not simply its interest in a tiny group of Chinese converts.

Ordination of Catholic bishops in mainland China an encouraging step

Then, there is no contradiction between God and patriotism. Chinese Catholics have to be good Catholics and good Chinese, and thus there is no longer any contradiction between Liu’s and Zen’s concerns. Beijing is also realising that China’s Christian tradition is an asset in reaching out to the world. In fact, Xi sent a gift to the pope last August – a copy of the seventh-century Xian Nestorian stele – proving that Christianity is part of China’s ancient tradition.

This has all created a larger framework that made it possible to overcome many hurdles of the past.

The fact that a bilateral understanding has not been signed yet shows there are still details to be narrowed down. But in principle, it is apparent that, for instance, an agreement on the appointment of bishops has already been reached. In past years many bishops have been appointed with the agreement of both sides. The agreement was applied, was not applied, was applied well, was applied badly, but it has been there.

The situation is similar with the unofficial bishops. They are practising and preaching and some even attended the assembly of Catholics in Beijing in December.

Many details remain unresolved, and perhaps they are too many to be unravelled through meetings of a commission shuttling back and forth between Rome and Beijing.

Now it is time for both sides to decide where to draw the line, and this has to do with the objections of their own domestic constituencies.

Here there are two layers of doubts, and we have to be clear. One is legitimate, addressing past concerns about God and country, and these doubts are being met. The other is illegitimate: it is about protecting vested interests both in Rome and Beijing associated with the cliques of the “patriotic” or “anti-communist” Catholics.

Both groups sit on billions of assets, and have the power of blackmail and influence on millions of people. Both may have vested interests in undermining either Pope Francis or President Xi, who are driving very muscular reform campaigns within their own apparatus.

All of this is occurring while both the Holy See and China are finding new international roles in a fast changing world where the old order is falling apart and the new one has not yet taken shape.

Francesco Sisci is a senior researcher at Renmin University in Beijing