Rome (AsiaNews) - We do not know whether to laugh or cry, whether to toast or grieve over the statements expressed by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, published in the Global Times on 13 March. The Global Times is the magazine of the "People's Daily", the official Chinese Communist Party newspaper.
reads: "China is always
sincere in improving ties with the Vatican and has been making continuing
efforts to this end. We are willing to have constructive dialogue with the
Vatican ... We hope the Vatican can create favorable conditions for the improving
These words provoked celebration in some quarters, suffering in others. For those who greeted them with enthusiasm they represent a conciliatory sign, China's obvious desire to be engaged in dialogue with the Holy See to reach the much longed diplomatic relations.
But perhaps it is early yet to uncork the champagne. It must be said that Hong Lei spoke after the Vatican Press Office director, Fr. Federico Lombardi, had given a long interview with Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong based television station, but one closely linked to the circles of power in Beijing.
In the interview,
Fr. Lombardi recalls that the Holy See is eager to reach a consensus on the
issue of the ordination of bishops and suggested China consider the way in
which they occur in the relations between the Vatican and Vietnam, while
admitting that "China is not Vietnam".
The "Vietnamese" model for episcopal ordinations is based on the Vatican choosing a name from suitable candidates and submitting it to the Government for approval. If Hanoi agrees, then the Holy See officially appoints the bishop; if Vietnam refuses, the Vatican is forced to submit another name, and so on until a consensus is reached bilaterally.
Beijing has rejected even this model and indeed, demands that the Holy See
accept at face value the format of self-election and self-appointment of
bishops launched in China after Mao Zedong's rise to power: the bishops are
elected and appointed by a committee made up of diocesan priests, nuns and lay people, but the name is "suggested"
- in reality imposed - by the Patriotic Association.
In fact, the Global Times reports this very significant sentence: "Beijing on Thursday [March 12] urged the Vatican to face [realize, or accept] the historical tradition and reality of Catholics in China, after the Vatican reportedly suggested a joint review on bishop ordination".
The versions of several optimistic commentators completely omit this sentence, which not only represents a condemnation of the "Vietnamese" method but is further affirmation that China, while willing - at least in words - to enter into dialogue with the Vatican, will not compromise on episcopal elections remaining firmly in China's hands, in the style of "self-appointed, self-election".
By omitting the
above mentioned sentence, all that remains are the beautiful words of China's
willingness for a "constructive dialogue with the Vatican".
It would be worthwhile to weigh up these beautiful words. They are part of the made to measure statements of the Foreign Ministry spokesman. Similar phrases were used when Pope Francis, returning from South Korea, last August, sent a telegram to President Xi Jinping (v. The declaration of Hua Chunying, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry expressed August 19), or when after the papal trip to the Philippines, again expressed by Hua Chunying (reported by Xinhua January 21, 2015). In each instance the term is China "is eager to have a constructive dialogue with the Vatican."
What does this "eagerness" actually mean? My impression is that the Foreign Ministry's pre-packaged response hides an increasing embarrassment at the countless signals that both the Holy See and the Pope himself have been sending over the past several months: telegrams from Pope Francis to Xi Jinping; his words about wanting to go to Beijing "tomorrow"; his appreciation of the "noble people of China"; his desire to institute fraternal, not even necessarily "diplomatic", relations with China .... Added to this are the "signals" of previous popes, also full of love for the "noble Chinese people" (John Paul II and Benedict XVI); openness to dialogue with the authorities on episcopal ordinations and cooperation in society, as stated in Benedict XVI's letter to Chinese Catholics, which Francis termed as "current" and not in the least outdated (as some are prone to thinking).
Faced with all of these gestures of friendship and openness, the Foreign Ministry is groping around because it knows that by refusing relations with the Vatican, China is revealing itself to be totally out of step with history. However, there is also a fringe in China that uses Stalinism as a smoke screen and continuously threatens illicit episcopal ordinations, while rebuking the Holy See over relations with Taiwan and vindicating ecclesial autonomy which are - in the words of Benedict XVI - "incompatible with Catholic doctrine" . This fringe is part of the United Front, the Patriotic Association, the Ministry of Religious Affairs that only a few months ago said it was planning a number of new episcopal ordinations without papal mandate ("independent") for 2015.
According to information from China, recently the foreign ministry in its diplomatically floral language, proposed the following to the Vatican: dialogue for diplomatic relations in exchange for the Holy See's silence about episcopal ordinations; silence about underground bishops; acceptance of bishops already ordained by the Party and those who de facto excommunicated.
In particular, the Vatican must remain silent about bishops who have been imprisoned for decades because of their fidelity to the pope, as well as those who have disappeared in police custody and are probably dead, those who the government cares so little about they refuse to even hand over their body or ashes to relatives, as is the case of Msgr. Cosma Shi Enxiang. And this just as not a week goes by without Pope Francis remembering the martyrs, those who are killed "because they are Christians," those who are deprived of the freedom to express their faith. Only this week in his Angelus of March 15, he again stressed that "Christians are persecuted and the world tries to hide it."
Just how much
China takes the lives of its citizens to heart is evident from one simple fact:
for over a month AsiaNews has requested a meeting with the Chinese Ambassador
to Italy to have some news of Msgr. Cosma Shi Enxiang. We have received no
response, or reason or excuse for the delay, for example: "Right now we
are too busy with the Chinese New Year" (sic); or "Right now the
ambassador is very busy"; or "The communications officer is
unavailable at the moment".
Apparently, in China's proposal to the Holy See, the Vatican is not only invited to take the "first step" towards dialogue (it has already taken countless steps!), but to take the final step, handing the Chinese Church over to the government, in the name of the establishment of diplomatic relations.
Some bishops from China, interviewed by AsiaNews, simply say that without true religious freedom (including the freedom to meet the Pope and ordain bishops without Party influence) diplomatic relations are pointless. It would be far better to focus on enhancing the Chinese faithful in their mission in society, even going underground with ordinations, until better times for diplomatic relations. Moreover, Pope Francis himself asked his nuncios and the Curia to use their diplomacy to further the mission of the Church and not for fleeting successes to make newspaper headlines.
So does this mean that we should sit around twiddling our thumbs waiting for the future? No, there is a task that we Catholics can do right now: help the unity of the Church in China, reconciling unofficial and official communities; help the unity of these faithful with the universal Church, visiting them, supporting them, and denouncing the violence they suffer. It must be borne in mind that China long ago signed the UN Conventions on civil liberties so that, when we ask Beijing to respect religious freedom, we are asking it to do something that t has already agreed in principle. There is also plenty to do in the formation of lay people and priests, especially in assimilating the basic elements of the Church's social doctrine and ecclesiology.
There is also a job to do for China, and in particular for Xi Jinping: in his fight against corruption he needs to investigate the way in which members of the United Front, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Patriotic Association have become rich off the Church, hiding a pragmatic acumen in business and expropriation behind a smokescreen of Stalinist radicalism.
As already shown many times, the Patriotic Association and the Ministry of Religious Affairs have seized goods and money from the Church to the tune of at least 13 billion euro, which under Chinese law should be returned to its rightful owners. Persecution in China is no longer based on ideological reasons, but in the name of greed and the idol of unjust wealth. Which is exactly what both Pope Francis and Xi Jinping condemn.