It’s time to put faith in rapprochement

A dissident Hong Kong group has launched a petition against any agreement between the Catholic Church and mainland China. But the Vatican has long had to accommodate territorial powers in the appointment of key church positions, and the need for diplomacy remains when dealing with communist states

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 February, 2018, 8:27am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 February, 2018, 8:37am

There is a religious schism originating from Hong Kong over China’s reported rapprochement with the Vatican.

Some Catholics such as retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun have been thrown into disarray by the latest diplomatic development. Zen, in fact, has gone on a rampage, denouncing the Vatican secretary of state as a man “of little faith” and Pope Francis himself for selling out. 

A dissident Catholic group has launched a petition against any rapprochement. The Hong Kong group is mostly spearheaded by such opposition figures as former Civic Party lawmaker Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, pan-democratic academic Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, and British activist Benedict Rogers. The local diocese has wisely stayed above the fray. 

The petition statement is an exercise in rhetorical hyperbole. It’s difficult to see how improved relations between Beijing and the Vatican could make things worse for mainland Catholics, as they have claimed.

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It’s instructive that they selectively quoted from Christus Dominus, a key Vatican document: “[T]he right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and per se exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority … This holy council desires that in future no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be granted to civil authorities.” 

The petition omitted the rest of the passage: “The civil authorities … are most kindly requested voluntarily to renounce the above-mentioned rights and privileges which they presently enjoy by reason of a treaty or custom.”

What if the civil authorities refuse? That’s where diplomacy comes in. 

Christus Dominus is the edict from the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Why the late date? Because it was a recent doctrine.

For a millennium across Europe, the Vatican had to accommodate territorial powers in the appointments of key church positions, and it continues to do so with the communist states of Laos, Vietnam and China. 

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A fair-minded New York Times report provides the context for rapprochement: “Many government-appointed bishops … have quietly received the Vatican’s blessing. And Pope Benedict XVI said in 2007 that loyal Catholics could worship in Chinese government-approved churches.

“The term ‘underground’ is largely a misnomer now. Although some clergy have been detained and face harassment, others mostly operate in the open.

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“ In many places, underground Catholics have built their own churches, sometimes huge cathedrals, without government interference.”

Rapprochement is the natural outcome – between the communist and the Catholic states, and between the official and “underground” churches.