Beijing needs a papal line

2013-01-31Asia Times

BEIJING - It is very likely, although not certain, that in the next 10 years, during the tenure of Chinese president Xi Jinping, Pope Benedict XVI (born in 1927) will pass away. If so, the Catholic Church, the largest unitary religion in the world and by far the most influential, will choose another pope.

Pope Benedict could certainly live to be 100, and thus the choice of a new pope could occur during the tenure of a future Chinese president, but that is unlikely, despite advances in modern medicine. Being a pope is an extremely stressful and very much full-time job. Few have lived to be 90 in this busy role, notwithstanding a special relationship with God. Then a new pope could well be elected while Xi is president of China. This will be a religious selection, but few can underestimate its political significance.

Long gone are the days when Stalin mockingly asked the number of divisions of the pope. Stalin's successors learned that the Catholic Church was a major force in toppling the communist regime in Poland and thus triggering the bankruptcy of socialism in Eastern Europe. At the same time, the Church has also played a role in de facto propping up Fidel Castro's red regime in Cuba. Without the pope's blessing, Castro - groomed as a boy by the Jesuits and allegedly now secretly re-converted to Catholicism - would perhaps have already been replaced by someone sponsored by the US government.

For these reasons, all of the major world governments are prepared to follow and possibly even influence the choice of the new pope - all but China, that is. China does not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

For Beijing, the issues of the Catholic Church so far have been mired in petty tussles over the choice of this or that bishop in the tiny Catholic community in China, less than 1% of the population. The 2005 papal elections were a warning shot. Then, Pope John Paul II passed away suddenly and his funeral became an important stage for Taiwan's then-president, Chen Shui-bian. China, without diplomatic ties with the Vatican, could not attend.

Chen wanted to use the funeral, with heads of state and government leaders present, to increase his international profile and underscore his plans for a unilateral declaration of independence of the island, formally part of one China.

Beijing scrambled to limit the damage of Chen's attendance and played down the political significance of the ceremony in Rome. China's efforts were successful, but they occurred in a non-hostile international climate, when America and its allies were concentrating on Iraq and Afghanistan. Now things are very different and not so favorable for China. The whole world now has its eyes fixed on Beijing, and the absence of the world's number-two power from a similar funeral could be a major embarrassment. And it is not only that.

A very recent Italian novel, Le mani sul Vaticano (Hands on the Vatican) by Vatican expert Carlo Marroni, details how the choice of a new pope is at the crossroads of international politics and the secret dealings of the Curia, the powerful Catholic central bureaucracy. Unlike many similar works of fiction, the book portrays the real mechanisms and likely machinations within the Vatican walls. The author is a true top expert on the subject after years of accurate reporting on Catholic issues.

Moreover, he is detached, cold, but not hostile, and does not fall into the easy and often ludicrous patterns of depicting the Church as a gang of power-thirsty old crooks. Marroni is careful in realistically showing the pitiless power struggles in the Church, but recognizes also the constant religious sentiment and genuine drive of those priests who, most of the time, maintain their faith in their God. The novel is set at the time of the death of a pope and election of a surprising next pope.

Does the novel suggest that the pope, aged 86 and allegedly in poor health, is about to pass away? It sounds like blasphemy. Nobody can say for sure, but this book along with the recent Vati-leaks prove that the campaign for the election of the next pope has already started. Here, all countries are preparing - except for China. The question really is: even without taking into consideration the Taiwan issue, can Beijing afford to not follow the choice of the most influential religious person in the world?

After all, Catholics make up less than 10 million in a population of almost 1.4 billion. Even in Asia, the region where Chinese interests are most entrenched, Catholics are not much more common. Except for the Philippines, where the Spanish domination left a firm Catholic majority, people loyal to the pope are an insignificant minority that are even less relevant in the domestic political debate as most Catholics are quiet, law-abiding citizens.

Yet this picture could be inaccurate and incomplete. The issue of religious freedom is crucial in China's cultural and political debate with the West, and a dialogue with Rome, home of the most widespread religion in the West, is essential for China's integration into the world, dominated by Western rules and a Western mindset. Moreover, if the Church is true to its pacifist spirit and wants to avoid or prevent a war (hot, cold, or soft) between the West and China, it has to help foster a cultural dialogue with China.

This can come through the establishment of relations between the Holy See and Beijing. For this, perhaps at the end of the day, the largest obstacle so far has been differing approaches to creating ties between the Vatican and China. In a nutshell, Beijing favored the idea of first normalizing ties and then solving the many problems on the ground; the Vatican would rather solve the problems first and then normalize ties. Without a compromise, things have not moved much in the past few years.

Yet things are rapidly changing in China and Asia. Conversions to Christianity are spreading in China - more than in other Asian countries. Some estimates put Christians in China at over 130 million, about 10% of the population. Even rejecting China's old temptation to control religion, no state can afford to completely ignore religion. Liberally religious America has been long suspicious of "papist" Catholics and has a history of thwarting Catholic development at home for fear of political interference from Rome.

Beijing has a history of heavy-handed intervention in religious affairs, such as with the selection of the Panchen Lama, Tibet's second-highest spiritual leader, or by not allowing the return of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's top religious leader. As such, can China really think of flouting the succession of the top religious figure of the world? In fact, the 2005 election of Pope Benedict XVI proved that to be impossible.

The Catholic world is bitterly divided and its legacy in its traditional Western areas is tainted by the recently uncovered spate of sex scandals. They were somehow tolerated until recently, and now are bitterly despised and draw immense public outrage. The Church may want to find unity again and open up new "markets" of souls. These are only in Asia, the new continent of Catholic conversion and the dynamo of the world economy, which could help also to offset the present Vatican financial difficulties caused by the Western economic crisis and having to cough up damages to prevent humiliating trials for child molestation in America and Europe.

An Asian pope - perhaps a Filipino of Chinese origin or a Vietnamese pope, representing that growing, lively segment of the world's population - could be a choice to consider. It might at once unify the Church on the old continents and launch it in a region that is home to 60% of the world population, and perhaps only 10% of its 1 billion Catholic followers.

Can Beijing afford to ignore all of this? Can Rome afford to do without China, home of over 20% of earthly souls, who drive of the world economy and form the heart of the Asian continent? Can the Church be truly universal without China? And are the Church's problems in China greater than the ones it has in many Muslim countries, which have normal ties with the Holy See? Perhaps both Rome and Beijing will have to consider these elements, as a pope who has worked so hard and so patiently to improve ties prepares for his succession. (2013-01-31 Asia Times)


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