China and the Vatican take a leap of faith

2009-07-31Asia Times

BEIJING - On July 24, the Beijing-backed Hong Kong daily Wen Wei Po ran a small and obscure article on an apparently minor decision about Catholics in China.

The newspaper reported China's intention to postpone the meeting of the official Catholic Patriotic Association, which is not recognized by the Holy See, and the conference of bishops, an important Catholic institution established in the 1960s by the Vatican Council II.

Previously, the meeting was scheduled for the second half of this year. It would have named a replacement for Fu Tieshan, the former bishop of Beijing, who was secretary general and vice chairman of the association. Fu, who passed away in April 2007, was not a legitimate bishop for the Holy See, as the pope did not recognize him.

Furthermore, many important decisions could have been made at the meeting. A replacement could have been named for Liu Bainian, the actual vice chairman of the Patriotic Association. Liu, born in 1931, was head of the official pro-Beijing faction of the Chinese Catholics for decades.

Most importantly for Rome, decisions need to be made about the conference of bishops - who should be its chairman and who should take part in it. The last point is very sticky.

There are four illegitimate bishops in China who are appointed by Beijing but not recognized by the pope. China's view is that they should be legitimated almost wholesale and thus should be part of the conference. Rome argues that reconciliation with the pope is a holy and religious matter, which should be decided by the pope after a private meeting and possibly a confession with each individual bishop.

The issue of the underground Church is apparently easier, but it also has traps. Rome thinks that after the normalization of ties, priests and bishops should be asked to make some kind of pledge to the government, as many European governments did with Catholic priests in the past. The ones who will not recognize the Beijing government would be out of the conference of bishops. This would solve the problem.

Some underground bishops might be willing to subscribe to an official pledge to the government after the normalization of ties with the Vatican, but Beijing may still refuse them entry, because Chinese officials may be suspicious of their true loyalty and fear the bishops might help to hijack the conference from government control or influence.

Last but certainly not least, there is the position of the bishops from Hong Kong and Macau. Beijing believes that as the territories have returned to the motherland, so should their clergy - they should be part of China's conference of bishops. Yet conversely, bishops from the two cities now assemble with their colleagues from Taiwan, which, as we all know, is a separate political entity from Mainland China and offers greater religious freedom than Beijing.

In sum, the problems are many and troublesome. Plus, Wen Wei Po reported that in order to have more candidates to the presidency of both the Catholic Association and the conference of bishops (another difficult point), the meeting had to be postponed until next year.

This had been a request from the Holy See, which Beijing has apparently accepted. This is very important per se, but even more important because in recent months Rome has come out with a couple of controversial documents for Chinese Catholics. The first was a letter drafted by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican's secretary of state and the virtual number two in the Holy See, interpreting the pope's letter to the Chinese, which was issued three years ago. Bertone's letter, for example, did not close the door to the home churches, which are opposed by Beijing because they are outside the official channels.

The second document was a letter by Hong Kong's Cardinal Joseph Zen, the virtual head of the Chinese Catholics, who encouraged all Chinese official bishops to strictly heed Rome's religious directives. This was also something that could be considered tricky in forging ties with Rome.

The fact that Beijing decided to ignore these two signals and instead sent a positive sign, the postponement of the conference of bishops, is a very strong indication of a massive improvement of ties between Beijing and Rome and of a radical change of attitude about Catholicism in China.

The time may now be mature for the normalization of the diplomatic relationship, as important breakthroughs have also been achieved in talks between the two sides. However, waters might become agitated once more. A few people who played very important roles in the recent dialogue will soon leave their positions.

Cardinal Ivan Dias, the head of Propaganda Fide, the organization that at the moment handles the Church in China, will retire because of old age. Similarly, the two point men of the talks will leave their positions. Pietro Parolin will be elevated to bishop and sent as a Nuncio abroad, and Liu Haixin will be posted as a senior Chinese diplomat in Europe.

This could be a further indication that both sides believe most of the job is done and some officers can be sent to other major posts. However, the path to normalization of ties between China and the Holy See has so far proved to be very slippery and full of snares.

For one thing, there is the problem - which two of the most ancient diplomacies in the world know well - that institutions in reality walk on the backs of men, and different men bring different results. Then, changing a winning team when the race is not quite finished and won may not be the best of choices. Unless, after so much time, one or both sides is thinking of giving up or simply relaxing at a time when attention should be sharpest. (2009-07-31 Asia Times)


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