Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Vatican and China

John Allen has an article in the WSJ today on the relationship between the Holy See and China. Will the Holy See eventually recognize the "official" Chinese church? Will the Chinese open diplomatic ties despite the fact that the Holy See recognizes Taiwan and an independent state? Many good questions out there that will eventually need to be resolved....

Church and (Communist) State

April 25, 2006

At the dawn of the 17th century, a Roman Catholic missionary priest named Matteo Ricci, a brilliant and audacious member of the newly founded Jesuit order, made his way to Beijing. Known at court as Lì Madòu, Ricci dazzled the emperors with his command of Chinese language and culture, his mastery of Western science, and his creative fusion of Confucian and Catholic ideals. He stood on the brink of converting the intellectual classes, until the Vatican lost its nerve over fears that its traditions would be assimilated into Chinese culture, and banned Ricci's so-called "Chinese rites." For the ensuing 400 years, China has remained basically a "closed shop" for Catholicism.

It wasn't for lack of trying. During the 19th and 20th centuries missionaries tried anew to penetrate China, beginning in the major ports and radiating outwards, but they were largely seen as agents of the colonial powers. When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, this historical resentment, combined with the Vatican's ties to the Chinese nationalists in Taiwan, made relations between Rome and Beijing impossible.

Pope John Paul II tried hard to break that stalemate. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state, famously said in 1999 that his boss would move the Vatican embassy from Taiwan to the mainland "not tomorrow morning, but tonight," if only the Beijing government would negotiate.

Though there's scant indication of an immediate breakthrough, Pope Benedict XVI may make better headway. The People's Republic of China is one of just nine countries -- including North Korea and Saudi Arabia -- which have no diplomatic ties to the Holy See. Vatican officials under both John Paul and Benedict have publicly stated that the pope is willing to compromise on a wide range of issues, including a role for Beijing in the appointment of bishops, in exchange for establishing formal relations.

Such eagerness may seem counterintuitive for a historically European institution that reaches less than 1% of China's 1.3 billion citizens, especially given the church's tradition of ferocious anti-communism. Given the Vatican's perceived interests, however, playing the "China card" makes all the sense in the world.

The pope's foremost concern is to defend the basic human rights of the estimated 13 million Catholics on the mainland. This isn't a negligible issue. While antireligious persecution today is nowhere near as severe as in the heyday of the Cultural Revolution -- when all religions were persecuted, not just Catholics -- believers who don't worship through state-approved organizations do so at their peril. The Cardinal Kung Foundation, an activist group, estimates that there are seven Catholic bishops in China currently in prison, 10 under house arrest and one in hiding -- not to mention 23 priests either in jails or forced labor camps. To put this into perspective, official Chinese statistics put the total number of Catholic bishops in the country at 69, with some 5,000 priests, though perhaps as many as 40 "underground" bishops are not counted in those numbers.

Recognizing China's official Catholic Church would heal the schism between official and unofficial worshipers on the mainland. In China, the split is government-created: Beijing exerts tight government control over the church through its "Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association," a Communist Party-controlled agency that vets clergy, church construction, public activities, and other aspects of religious life. But there's also an unofficial, "underground" church, known as the "church of the catacombs," that recognizes the Vatican's authority.

The Vatican abhors such formal ruptures in the church, which create the possibility of further division along the lines of the Protestant Reformation. So in China, the Vatican has quietly worked to heal the divisions. Today, there's an informal understanding that the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association will not insist upon a bishop unacceptable to the Vatican, and the pope will recognize bishops that emerge from elections held under the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association's aegis. On background, Vatican officials have told me and other reporters that more than three-quarters of the bishops in today's "official" church have been recognized by the pope.

That understanding, however, remains dependent on the goodwill of those in power in Beijing. The Vatican believes that formal diplomatic relations, with a promise of religious freedom, would end the era of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association altogether, thus erasing the distinction between the official church and that of the catacombs. In so doing, the church in China would finally be unified, with the infrastructure and administrative capacity to absorb future growth. Beijing remains wary of such a move, conscious of what happened in Eastern Europe, where the Catholic Church bolstered opposition forces to the Communists and ultimately helped bring down the Soviet-backed regimes.

There's also a host of practical reasons why the Holy See wants to make up with the China's Communists. The Vatican sees China as the next, and perhaps the last, great missionary frontier for Catholicism. Given the erosion of traditional Catholic cultures in Europe and North America, an Asian country with more than a billion people, with a deep hunger for moral and spiritual values as the old Communist ideology crumbles, and without any established national religion, appeals strongly. Asia's other emerging superpower, India, will never offer as many potential converts, given the tight identification there between national identity and Hinduism. Behind closed doors in Rome, missionary orders and lay movements have been meeting for years, laying plans for expansion in China if and when the government relents.

That leaves the sticky issue of Taiwan, which China claims as its own -- and which the Vatican currently recognizes as an independent state. John Paul II repeatedly vowed that the church "will not abandon" its roughly 310,000 worshippers in Taiwan, regardless of where its embassy to China is located. The fact that the pope has not appointed a full ambassador to Taiwan since 1979 -- sending a charges d'affaires instead -- is a clear signal that the Vatican is already preparing for the transition.

Ultimately, history will judge whether the Vatican's China policy is forward-looking or feckless. If China can be persuaded to enter into diplomatic relations with the Holy See, or so the theory goes, it will have to make concessions on religious freedom, which will eventually mean that Chinese Catholics can worship more freely, travel more easily, construct churches more readily, and generally practice their faith without intimidation. Seen from within a Catholic worldview, it is little wonder that once again, as in Ricci's era, Beijing is in the church's prayers.

Mr. Allen Jr. is the Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, and author of "The Rise of Benedict XVI" (Doubleday, 2005).


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