Well, business is business, even if it’s that of saving souls. Like many Western companies that salivate over the prospects of the China market yet resent such loss of autonomy as forced joint ventures with mainland control, the Vatican has long resisted Beijing’s appointment of bishops.
Now, a historic deal appears to have been reached, with Rome recognising seven bishops appointed by Beijing. Beijing will reciprocate recognition to some of the Vatican’s own bishops now operating in the so-called underground church. Presumably future ones will be mutually agreed upon to avoid troublesome priests. Joint bishop selection is, in effect, the Catholic version of a joint venture.
Of course, the real issue is whether or when the Vatican’s diplomatic recognition will switch from Taiwan to the mainland. To put it crudely, if Apple has to choose between the Taiwan and the mainland markets, which one would it pick? Since the fight over the selection of bishops is close to being settled, there will be nothing standing in the way of full diplomatic relations between the two states.
Logic dictates that it’s inevitable and only a matter of time. Now will Washington threaten the Pope himself as it has warned a few other countries not to make the switch?
Rome is looking to the future. Catholicism’s decline in the West looks irreversible. Both secularism and declining birth rates in Europe have worked against its spread in the Western world. Widespread sexual and institutionalised abuses by the clergy and their subsequent cover-ups are the last nail in the coffin.
The only significant growth in Catholicism has been in Africa and China. Between 1980 and 2012, Catholic populations grew a staggering 238 per cent in Africa, 115 per cent in Asia, but just 6 per cent in Europe, according to a Georgetown University study. The number of parishes more than doubled in Africa and Asia, but declined by 12 per cent in Europe.
But growth in Catholicism in China has stalled at about 12 million early this decade and has since declined.
Meanwhile, far more decentralised Protestant sects have been going from strength to strength with some estimates putting their numbers at 60 million. Catholicism is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer compared with Protestantism as Google Chrome, or Pepsi to Coca-Cola.
I am as big a fan of Pope Francis as any lapsed Catholic. But it’s hard to think such considerations are not uppermost in his mind.