04/21/2005, 00.00
china - vatican
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The smoke screen of China's preconditions for relations with the Holy See

by Gianni Criveller
China requests to pope Benedict XVI, to cut relations with Taiwan and not interfere in its internal affairs are simply a diplomatic blunder.

Hong Kong  (AsiaNews) – Commenting today on the election of Benedict XVI, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao quoted the two pre-conditions necessary to improve China- Vatican relations: the Vatican must break relations with Taiwan; the Holy See should not interfere in China's internal affairs, not even in terms of religion. The same pre-conditions had been mechanically repeated by Chinese authorities to Pope John Paul II's numerous calls for a real dialogue. How important are the conditions stressed by Beijing?  For Fr. Gianni Criveller, PIME, an expert on China-Vatican relations, they are just a smoke screen, an excuse for China's unwillingness to open a discussion with the Holy See. 

AsiaNews publishes here excerpts from "John Paul II and China", an analysis by Fr. Criveller. The entire study will be published in the June 2005 issue of the monthly magazine "AsiaNews"  (in Italian).


First Pre-condition: Relations with Taiwan

The Taiwan question is not the real problem, and the Chinese government knows it. It was not the Holy See that chose to leave China after the advent of Communism; the Holy See was forced to leave in 1951. Since 1971 the diplomatic presence of the Holy See in Taipei has been downgraded to the minimum (chargé d'affaires). It was Paul VI's prophetic choice precisely to favor dialogue with Beijing.           

Relevant Chinese authorities have been informed for many years that, with a comprehensive agreement, the Holy See is ready to solve the Taiwan issue in a proper manner. This offer is also included in the letter of the Pope to Deng Xiaoping in 1983. In February 1999, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Secretary of State, said that the Vatican was ready to transfer the apostolic nunciature from Taiwan to China immediately, if Beijing would agree to the move.

Let me recall here that the recognition of the Republic of China in Taiwan was never a stumbling block to Chinese diplomacy. Chinese leaders like Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai warmly received Richard Nixon in 1972, when the United States had full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, not to mention US military assistance and collaboration. Similarly, recently China accepted South Korea's (1992) and South Africa's (1998) switch of diplomatic relationships from Taipei to Beijing, after the conclusion of intense negotiations, not as a pre-condition. Demanding the break of diplomatic relations as a pre-condition is unfair on the part of Beijing, in fact is a diplomatic blunder.

Chinese authorities should be aware, like the rest of the world is, that the Holy See is a special entity, vested only of moral authority, not a state among others. The diplomatic activity of the Holy See is only in function of peace and of the pastoral mission of the Church. The pastoral mission of the Church comes before any diplomatic success. The mission of the Pope is religious. This is why the Church cannot thus far accept the diplomatic pre-conditions imposed by Beijing. For the Church, diplomacy is simply a tool to promote its legitimate freedom and rights. When the Chinese government is ready to grant the Church those long-awaited rights, the diplomatic dispute will be over.

Second Pre-condition: Nomination of Bishops

The second pre-condition, namely, non-interference in China's internal affairs, relates to the appointment of bishops, and the possibility for Chinese bishops to communicate normally with Rome, including the possibility to visit the Pope ad limina, as all other Catholic bishops. For Catholics, the relationship with the Pope is a matter of conscience, and has nothing to do with foreign influence. The unity with the Pope symbolizes the unity with the Universal Catholic Church, an essential tenet of Catholic doctrine.

The Church enjoys this right everywhere in the world, but China. 172 countries in the world, including countries very jealous of their national dignity and sovereignty, and including Communist countries such as Vietnam and Cuba, agree that the right to choose and nominate bishops belongs to the Holy See. After all the bishops are religious and not political figures. However, a bishop is also an important authoritative member of the civil society. Therefore, the Holy See is willing to make reasonable and legitimate concessions, as it did in Vietnam. Such a pre-condition is unreasonable. 

China Opposition to John Paul II

China's leadership is not yet really interested or ready for a historic and comprehensive agreement with the Holy See, its priorities are elsewhere. Many Chinese cadres do not really know, understand or appreciate the Catholic Church. They prefer to keep it at a distance. Besides, a meaningful accord with the Holy See would require a change of mentality, a change in administration, and in religious affairs. It might require the abolition or radical reduction of the structures of control (such as the Patriotic Association and the Religious Affairs Bureau), and a change in some middle level cadres.

 All the ideological, administrative and repressive instruments implemented in the years of anti-religious political campaigns are basically still there: the one-party-ideology, the abuse of power, corruption, torture, illegitimate detention and labor camps. The practices of these extreme measures are not so generalized as before, but they have not disappeared. Around 25 underground bishops and priests are still in detention or have disappeared; many more are prevented from exercising their ministry.

When the Chinese Communist Party was unable to command any ideological support from the Chinese people, China's hostility towards the Pope was camouflaged attributing the fall of Communism in Europe to John Paul II. But it should be obvious that the situation of Catholic Poland with a Polish Pope cannot be compared with the situation in China, where Catholics are less than 1 % of the population. Moreover, the Pope was not simply against Communism, he was against any kind of totalitarianism, political, ideological and economical. In his youth he suffered much under Nazism. He was a severe critic of the American administration for its two wars in Iraq.  In any case, the Pope met in the friendliest manner with Communist leaders, such as Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko (1979); Polish General Wojciech Jaruzelski (1987); Soviet Union President's Mikhail Gorbachev (1989) and Cuban Fidel Castro (1998).

After the Death of the Pope John Paul II

The People's Republic of China alone did not send any delegate to attend the funeral services of John Paul II. Even the Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman's Liu Jianchao words of condolence for the Pope's death recently indicated little sorrow, followed as they were, by the decades-years-old two pre-conditions (April 4, 2005). 

The same spokesperson, the day before the funeral of the Pope, attributed the absence of a Mainland representative to the participation of Taiwanese President Chen Shuibian. What a poor excuse to justify, at the last moment, the fact that China was, after all, not sending anyone to the funeral!  If China, irrespective of Taiwan's actions, would have sent a delegate from the Chinese embassy in Rome to the funeral, the entire world would have applauded, and the Holy See would readily have expressed its appreciation. It would have been, from the Chinese side, a noble gesture in a circumstance that was indeed exceptional and unrepeatable. On April 8 the entire world put aside political and religious differences, and converged on Saint Peter's Square. China missed that appointment.

In the recent past Vatican diplomats, or people close to Vatican circles, have engaged in a great deal of activism towards Chinese authorities. Reports of imminent breakthroughs appeared in the media, often accompanied by faulty information that indicates that the writers have little or no grasp of a complex situation.

I believe that diplomacy and diplomatic relations might be useful but not essential at all to the mission of the Church, which is essentially religious and spiritual. The Chinese Church, like many other Churches in the world in different eras, has survived without diplomatic relations, and I do not see why it is necessary now to pursue that at all costs. There will be no breakthrough until the country and the political powers have changed. I see other priorities for the Church in China, which is changing significantly. We have to support bishops, priests, Sisters, seminarians and the faithful pastorally and spiritually, during this delicate period when the leadership of the Church in China is shifting from an older to a younger generation. And above all, we have to help the Chinese Church cope with the insidious challenges of modernization and secularization, which are taking a serious toll also in China.

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