10/21/2015, 00.00
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Relations between China and the Vatican: cooperation and especially patience in overcoming impasse

by Wang Meixiu*
A researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences traces current "state of play" in relations between Beijing and the Holy See. A long and tortuous journey, complicated by mutual misunderstandings, must not undermine the possibility of opening channels of cooperation in the future. Episcopal appointments must be left in the hands of the Pope, but the Vatican must better understand the reasoning of the Chinese government and learn to trust more. Underlying need for patience on all sides involved.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - Since Pope Francis’ election to the papacy, there has been mounting reference to possible relations between China and the Vatican, a boost in dialogue, and diplomatic relations. The frenetic enthusiasm of various media and observers of China has corresponded to few facts: Francis’ words of praise, responses by the Chinese spokesman, some openings in the Communist Party media. What is known is the high and widespread esteem that Francis enjoys on social networks in China, because of his simple style, his love for the poor and the sick. What is also well known is that dialogue between Vatican and Chinese representatives has been ongoing for years, but (as is also obvious) the contents have never been made known to the public. Last week, for example, a Vatican delegation was in Beijing. Words filtered through from here and there indicating that talks centered on the modalities of electing and ordaining bishops in China, to prevent new illicit episcopal ordinations.

Many problems remain between the Holy See and China. AsiaNews wants to offer its readers the visions and voices of personalities involved in these dialogues. This is why we asked Ms Wang Meixiu to present her point of view on the issues and perspectives of a relationship between the Holy See and the Republic of China.

Professor Wang is a member of the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, which often acts as a government think-tank. Her analysis shows that she understands that much still needs to be done to convince China that the Holy See is not a political body. At the same time she stresses how much patience is required by Vatican officials to find a path of dialogue with the leadership that guarantees the religious rights within contemporary Chinese society.

President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China and Pope Francis of the Catholic Church visited the United States and the United Nations in late September at the same time (Editor: but on different occasions). Pope Francis praised the Chinese people once again and expressed his willingness to visit China. This, again, aroused media attention on the China-Vatican relations.

Based on my research, the current situation of the China-Vatican relations has a long and tortuous past. In 1922, the Holy See sent Archbishop Celso Costantini (later became cardinal) to China as the first Apostolic Delegate to China, whose main function was to supervise Catholic missionary work in various parts of mainland China. In 1942, the then legitimate Government of the Republic of China and the Holy See had established diplomatic relations. Since then, the Holy See’s representative to China assumes a dual mission of dealing relationships with the Chinese government and with the local Church.

In 1949, as the Government of the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China was established, there have been two mutually independent regimes on a(the) Chinese land. After twists and turns, the then apostolic delegate Archbishop Antonio Riberi, once stationed in Nanjing, eventually reached Taiwan in 1952 to carry on his mission as the Apostolic Internuncio to the “Republic of China”. This is the origin of the diplomatic relations between the Holy See and “Taiwan authorities” of today. In sharp contrast, until now, the Government of the People's Republic of China has never established diplomatic relations with the Holy See, not to say as what the media often described as a severance of diplomatic ties with the Holy See in early 1950s.According to research by overseas scholars, Archbishop Riberi attempted to contact with the PRC government but failed before leaving the country.

In the subsequent East-West Cold War era, China and the Holy See were inevitably deeply influenced by the situation. China and the Chinese Church cut ties with “imperialism” including the Holy See. First, the Three-Self Reform Movement began from the grassroots level, and culminated to the inauguration of the Chinese Catholic Faithful’s Patriotic Association in Beijing in 1957 (and its name was changed to Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in the next year). It proposed to break off with the Holy See in their political and economic relationships, as well as “in the doctrine and canons of obeying the Pope in Rome”. In the following year, the Church in Hubei elected bishop candidates and wrote immediately to inform the Holy See, hoping the Holy See would take into account the serious situation of the many vacant episcopal sees in China to approve the candidates so that they could keep the Church survived.

However, amid the Cold War atmosphere, the Holy See strictly condemned the “Three-Self Reform” movement and sternly rejected the list of bishop candidates. Thus, the Church in China, under such political environment, began a history of ordaining bishops without papal appointment and walking on a path with detours of bishop elections and ordinations without the Pope’s participation and appointment. Until the 1980s and 1990s, the practice of papal appointment of Chinese bishops was quietly and privately restored.

Under China’s reform and opening up policy, the Catholic Church in China made a visible expression of the Church’s religious desires to be a “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” Church. It is the Church in China’s expression of fundamental demand of the right of religious belief, in observing and safeguarding the religious right of having papal appointment of bishops in the Church. Moreover, this demand of the Church in China, after some time, also got the understanding of related departments of the local governments. In May 2006, Xinhua News Agency published a statement of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, stating that after a bishop candidate in China was elected, the list was reported to the Holy See. Because of this, contacts and dialogue between the Chinese government and the Holy See have been in progress over the matters related to the Catholic Church in China.

Since the Holy See is a city-state in its form of existence, but actually it is a religious entity and the center of leadership of the universal Catholic Church. Therefore, countries dealing with and treating matters relating to the Catholic Church have to leave it to their respective churches to do. For instance, no matter before or after the United States and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in 1984, all the bishops in the US were appointed by the Pope. Also, the Holy See and the civil government will consult one another over local Church affairs and other relevant matters, and will reach an agreement or consensus. With understanding, they then take actions in a consistent way and to avoid conflicts. Until now, the Holy See has signed about 200 agreements with (about 200) many countries worldwide.

Unfortunately, our Chinese government and the Catholic Church, local and abroad including the Vatican, have obvious differences on certain issues of the Catholic Church. Therefore, even in the beginning of the 21st century, certain bishops in the open Church in China carried out “illicit ordinations” without Rome’s approval. Such terms now become synonym of being in conflict with the Holy See. Also, quite a number of such incidents had happened in recent years. Some of them even became the attention of international media in this Internet age, adversely affected the Church in China, the Chinese government and the Holy See.

Besides the bishop appointment issue, there are other problems between China and the Holy See that need to be resolved, such as the inconsistencies in the administrative divisions of dioceses; how to resolve the question on the religious identity of bishops and priests who are not recognized by the Chinese government, and those known as “illicit” bishops  according to the Church documents (government); whether the Church in China should keep “archdioceses” and “archbishops”; and articulation of certain terms or references in the documents approved by the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (Editor: Bishops’ Council in China) and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

However, in the past 30 years since China’s reform and opening up, the Chinese government emphasized more on the social functions of religions, and it takes time to understand the believers’ life and spiritual values, especially towards Christianity, the world outside China, international relations and the understanding of the role and international influence of the Holy See’s religious entity. Moreover, the Holy See also needs a process of understanding China’s cultural tradition, the Chinese Communist Party’s decision-making approach, the system and approach of managing religions, the Chinese’s way of thinking, of expression, of mental habits, the ability to know and experience the world outside China. Therefore, their understanding on the problems existed between them and on the issues needed to be resolved are not necessarily the same. In addition, in the past 30 years, the contacts between the two sides were intermittent and stumbled, and so far still fruitless (unsuccessful). It inevitably exacerbated distrust and suspicion between them. It requires both sides to be patient, repeatedly to sit down and exchange views, and unswervingly promote mutual understanding and trust.

Both sides may start with discussions on issues that easily lead to conflicts, or with problems urgently require solutions, such as the appointment of Chinese bishops, and how to avoid conflicts caused by ordination of unilaterally recognized bishop candidates. According to some basic facts and common sense (knowledge of ), the Church in China, as one of the mass organizations on Chinese soil, must act in accordance with the Church’s universal religious canons and faith regulations in order to maintain their own religious identity, but also to respond to the basic requirements of the Chinese government in order to prove that it is willing to comply with state laws and regulations on religious organizations. For a long time, the Church in China has adhered to the position of patriotism and of loving the religion. It shows clearly that they understand their own identity without a doubt. Therefore, China and the Holy See must work together and gradually resolve the emerging problems within the Catholic Church in China.

In addition, in accordance with the Catholic Church’s internationally-used organizational structure and framework, the existing institutional framework of the Catholic Church in China needs to be adjusted. Once the current Bishops’ Council can accommodate all the bishops in mainland China and can assume the leadership of the Church in China, just as in the role of the Catholic bishops’ conference in other countries, the adjustment of the organizational framework of the Catholic Church in China can be considered in place. By then, the Bishops Council will remain, and must be within the legal framework of the People's Republic of China a religious organization, and to lead the mass believers to be patriotic and to love the religion, as well as to safeguard national unity and social stability. At the same time, it is anticipated that, with the development of society, the Catholic lay people’s social status, education level and social skills, the ability to handle Church affairs will be raised, and their participation in Church affairs and social affairs would be stronger. The role of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association will be transformed and it will inevitably find a new role in future.

It should be noted that the Catholic Church in China is also a supporter and a beneficiary of China's reform and opening up policy. It supports and embraces the Chinese government’s direction to improve relations with the Holy See. Some studies suggest that the Catholic population in China is less than one percent of the whole population, and counts the least among the five major religions in China. In the past nearly 70 years of history, especially since China’s reform and opening up policy, in the process of learning how to implement the Second Vatican Council documents, the members of the Catholic Church in China gradually learn to live in harmony with believers of other religions and non-believers. On the whole, they are for the construction of the country, for social stability, and silently playing their own role. If the Sino-Vatican relations can be improved, the different levels ranging from the state, the society, the local authorities to even each Catholic, will benefit from it. Of course, given the complex issues faced by China and the Holy See, and their ways of understanding and problem-solving are very different. We also need to deepen our patience, to be more patient, and then to wait more patiently.


* Researcher of the Institute of World Religions, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

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