Catholic dynamic shifts in China

2012-07-26Asia Times

BEIJING - Ties between China and the Vatican are at a crossroads. The ordination on July 7 of Ma Daqin as the Vatican's bishop of Shanghai and his public announcement that he would renounce his membership in the official Catholic Patriotic Association have the potential to create a huge change in ties between Beijing and Rome.

The first reaction in Rome to this announcement was of surprise, meaning that the Holy See didn't command the bishop to give up his membership and didn't encourage him to do so. Evidence of this is the fact that many bishops in China are members of the Catholic Patriotic Association, and Rome has not demanded they give up their memberships.

However, the Patriotic Association is controversial for Catholics. It is a legacy of the Cold War and in theory sometimes puts laymen in charge of religious affairs. For this reason, some people in Rome rejoiced at the announcement, claiming that Bishop Ma was a brave man. He is now reportedly being held by the authorities at a local seminary.

Things are very different from Beijing's point of view. Ma's appointment came after months of bitter negotiations between the two sides - and to the satisfactions of both, they actually reached a compromise. Beijing then felt betrayed because even after an agreement was reached, Rome - or in this case, its representatives in the person of Bishop Ma - changed his mind and backed off from the compromise by breaking with the Patriotic Association. That is, in other words, Beijing now feels it cannot trust pledges from the Catholics, even after an agreement has been reached.

For Beijing, the issue of the Patriotic Association is a very thorny one. It is an issue of principles and of practice. In principle, Beijing feels it needs some degree of control or supervision over religious groups, and of course especially over Catholics, whose leadership is abroad, in Rome. Beijing is not alone in fearing Catholics: many Western protestant countries have branded Catholics "papists", people loyal to the pope rather than to the local government. It is indication of growing trust that the Chinese have agreed to discuss and find a kind of compromise on the appointment of some bishops, instead of a unilateral appointment of bishops by Beijing.

Furthermore, the Patriotic Association is a huge structure employing many thousands of families and with real estate holdings worth possibly billions. It is not just an organization concerning Catholics, but it also interests Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists and Taoists. It is a huge bureaucratic body with its own internal logic and assets worth a fortune. It is then also a problem of the livelihood and welfare of millions of people in China.

The two issues, the principle and the practice, of course go hand in hand, and Beijing is very clear about it. In fact, also sought the advice of Rome to change the system.

For Rome, the issue of the Patriotic Association is different. In principle, it believes the church may respond to requests from the state but not from an organization that manages also the internal life of the church and which has a religious bearing, and in practice it is an issue of internal strife within the Catholic Church.

Many officials in the Patriotic Association are Catholics who in the 1950s or later decided to back the government and go against Rome's request that they go underground. So even now, the old hatred burns under the ashes. For this reason, Rome never responded to the request from Beijing for suggestions about reforming the Patriotic Association, deeming it too thorny to even try to reform it, according to people in Rome.

Many Catholics think that the Patriotic Association should be completely disbanded. The fact that in communist Vietnam there is no organization like a patriotic association for the Catholics was, according to Rome, a major advantage in the de facto normalization of ties and reaching an agreement on the appointment of bishops.

Disbanding the association is not an option for Beijing because of two practical reasons: how to control and keep an eye on the activities of the Catholics without the Patriotic Association, and what to do with the assets and the huge bureaucracy that go with it? To these questions, Rome so far has not given a constructive answer.

These are Beijing's concerns but not Rome's. Rome is conversely worried about religious issues and legitimacy in the appointment of bishops. That is, the Pope has to approve the choice of bishops in China, and their ordination has to be carried out according to religious principles. This means that if China appoints a bishop without the approval of the pope, this bishop is not legitimate and all bishops taking part in his ordination are also "tainted" by this act. This becomes a growing strain because even legitimate bishops taking part in the ordination of an illegitimate bishop are put under a dark cloud.

Beijing doesn't really understand the mechanics and reasons for this and is insensitive to it. To Beijing, the issue is the need for bishops the government can trust in order to know what happens in the Catholic body, and these concerns should be in some way accommodated by Rome. But this is totally at cross-purposes with Rome, which simply believes that these are not its concerns - and its concerns are limited to those of religion.

The cross-purposes of the two sides weigh hugely on the daily life of the Catholic Church in China. Bishops, priests, and common Catholic followers believe strongly that unity before the pope is one of the intrinsic features of their faith. Therefore, any split in this unity is a trial of their faith and of their identity as Catholics or as Chinese. Common Chinese followers are vague about the requirements of the Chinese government, although most of them are not anti-government. In fact, throughout Chinese communist history, Catholics have been one of the meekest religious faiths in China, ready to obey the government whenever ordered to provided it does not against their religious principles.

This is the backdrop of the ordination in Shanghai. Part of the compromise reached between the two sides was that in the ceremony, an illegitimate bishop from Fujian would attend, but because of his attendance, about 60 priests (out of around 80 in the Shanghai diocese) didn't join the ceremony. Bishop Ma, out of concern for religious unity and for his priests, agreed to have his ordination without the controversial Fujian bishop. That is, although the controversial figure attended the ceremony, he did not take part in the ordination itself or put his hands on Ma's head. Evidently, Ma thought this was not enough to address the concerns of his Church and what he thought were the worries about him in Rome. Therefore, he announced his resignation from the Patriotic Association.

However, this resignation creates a very new element in the Catholic dynamic in China. If Ma resigned, are all bishops loyal to Rome supposed to resign as well? Conversely, if Ma hadn't resigned, would that have signaled official Vatican approval of the Patriotic Association, something the Vatican has always been very vague about? The Holy See doesn't like the Patriotic Association but has long ceased confronting it directly.

In other words, Ma's resignation removed a very useful gray area where the two entities, Beijing and Rome, could find room for conciliation. Ma's move forces Catholics on the ground to somehow take sides: are they for Beijing or Rome? It is the same hard choice that Catholics had to confront until the 1980s and a choice that the papal letter of 2007 dispelled by claiming that a good Chinese Catholic should also be a good Chinese citizen.

Here is the crossroads: either Rome and the Vatican find a suitable solution to this dilemma, and this will dramatically improve ties between the two sides; or they will fail to do so, and Beijing and the Vatican could be torn apart, asking - demanding - Chinese Catholics to again make a choice.

In this situation, certainly, Beijing is, as usual, insensitive about the deep religious concerns of the Church. However, Rome completely failed to understand the political relevance for Beijing of the announcement of the resignation. Of course, the simplest solution of all could be a public announcement that there was a misunderstanding, that Bishop Ma never really wanted to give up his membership in the Catholic Patriotic Association, and in fact only meant to announce his concern about his new role. This could be a first step to diffuse the tension.

After that, the two sides need to take very concrete measures to address the broad significance of their bilateral ties, which are not simply religious or political, but cultural.

The Vatican embodies the continuity of Western civilization for 2,000 years, and it could work as an important bridge, bringing the West and the East one step closer, as the Jesuit missionaries did in China in the 17th century. Short of that, all tensions, even non-religious ones, around China could grow more bitter. The question then is: what direction do Beijing and Rome want to take?  (2012-07-26 Asia Times)


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