The Pope and Beijing
Beijing/Vatican — There are two cities on the globe in which L’Osservatore Romano—the official newspaper of the Vatican—is carefully studied word-for-word and whose reports and commentaries are paid special attention to: the Holy City in Rome and Beijing in the State Administration of Religious Affairs. The latter is a kind of “Office of the Inquisition” of the Communist Party that ensures that for the People’s Republic there is only one God in China: the Communist Party itself. The counterpart in Rome, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was for years the Catholic “Inquisitor”, guardian of the pure teachings of the Pope. Currently, at the very top of Benedict XVI’s wish list is the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Beijing. Who will win: the Pope or Beijing?
In 1951, only two years after Mao’s rise to power, the now atheistic and communist Beijing severed diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Since that time, the Vatican has maintained diplomatic relations with the Republic of Taiwan only. Essentially, a government controlled agency, the so-called Patriotic Union, appoints all Catholic bishops without the usual prior approval of the Holy Father in Rome. The Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China has since been divided. Of the 12 million Catholics—less than one percent of the population—8 million remain loyal to the Pope despite 54 years of harassment and persecution; a flock of 4 million belongs to the Patriotic Union of the communist government. Seventy-four bishops and 1,700 priests belong to the Patriotic Union, 46 bishops and 1,000 priests to the Church loyal to Rome.
For the Vatican, The People’s Republic of China is of great strategic and historic importance. With 1.3 billion people, a dynamically growing economy, increasing influence in Asia, and full membership in the Security Council of the United Nations, the communist nation counts among the most important countries in the growth region of Asia as well as the world. With its small flock of committed Chinese Catholics, Rome would like to make a positive contribution to developments in China. This is exactly what has transpired for some time now in the second important major power in Asia—namely India—which, with one billion people, is of almost equal size. There, the 17 million Catholics have taken on a series of influential government positions, for example, George Fernandes from the former Portuguese colony Goa, is the long-standing leader of the Socialist Party and the Rail Workers’ Union, father of the Indian atomic bomb and was Defense Minister until 2001.
The future of the Catholic Church lies in a well-educated, young, committed and influential elite in Asia. The Catholics have become catalysts among intellectuals in a relation far beyond their actual number.
Even now, the youngest bishops in the world are guiding the Catholic Church in China—the age of the majority of newly appointed bishops ranges between the late 30s to mid 40s and they grew-up from the very beginning in a communist dictatorship. In 2004, four out of five new bishops were under 40 years of age; in this year it was two out of three.
Prior to the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, a dream of the new Pope could be fulfilled: the establishment of diplomatic relations combined with a settled agreement regarding the manner in which new bishops are appointment, a new concordat with a guarantee of religious freedom for Catholics, an historic first visit from the Holy City to the Forbidden City, and thus an historic warming of relations between Beijing and the Vatican.
What might the Pope and Beijing stand to gain by the establishment of diplomatic relations?
Reactions to this reconciliation by old-school Communist-Maoists, and in particular in the State Administration of Religious Affairs, ranges from dismissive to openly hostile. They stand for undiluted Maoist-Leninist teaching. Their dogma states: economic freedom “yes”, political freedom “no”, religious freedoms only in private, but not however in unofficial churches and organizations.
This still dominant group was responsible for the fact that the four Chinese bishops summoned by Benedict XVI to the important three-week World Synod of Bishops were prohibited from traveling to Rome—supposedly due to “health concerns.” Three of them had been recognized by the Beijing Government: bishop Anthony Li Duan from Xi’an and his colleague Aloysius Jin Luxian from Shanghai as well as bishop Luka Li Jingfeng from Fengsian. Only Joseph Wei Jingyi, bishop of Qiqihar, was not a part of the official State Church of China.
The Vatican responded to the refusal with an unusual gesture: the four seats intended for the Chinese visitors remained conspicuously empty—an affront to prestige-obsessed Beijing occurring only a few weeks prior to the state visit to Great Britain, Germany and Spain by the nation’s president Hu Jintao.
On October 18th, Papal Secretary of State Angelo Sadano read a letter from the Chinese bishops aloud to the Pope before the synod.
On the 22nd, the Vatican published the response to the letter from the more than 200 assembled bishops to their Chinese brothers. “We brothers of the synod send our brotherly and heart-felt wishes. Your absence has brought forth great sadness in our souls. The entire Church in China is in our hearts and prayers!”
One day later, Benedict XVI expressed the deep sadness of the bishops regarding their absence and spoke of a path of suffering of the Catholic Church in China which is present in the hearts of the bishops and will not remain fruitless.
Nevertheless, a new school-of-thought put forth by pragmatists is becoming increasingly stronger in Beijing and the provincial governments. As in the economic sphere, they stand for a silky pliability of China. There are positive signs providing nourishment to the desires of the Pope.
In April, the Chinese government invited the Order of the Sisters of Mother Teresa to China from Calcutta. In mid-July, Reverend Mother Nirmala visited the city Qingdao in the province Shangdong.
The books of the Catholic Church, as well as the Pope’s book Introduction to Christianity are sold in official book stores. Nevertheless, all religious works remain subject to strict censorship.
Up to now, only a dozen of the 74 official state bishops have been recognized by the Pope. However, in the last two years, an acceptable practical concordance has developed regarding the practice of ordination between the claim to leadership of the Pope and political dominance of the Chinese central government.
The bishops Joseph Xing Wenzhi from Shanghai and Anthony Dang Mingyan from Xian have been acknowledged both by the government and the Holy See. In this year, there were three more instances among which was the appointment on October 8th of the bishop Paul He Zeging, age 37, in the province Szechuan.
In the synod, the bishop of Hong Kong Joseph Ze-kuin Zen declared: “The majority of bishops of the official church are legitimized by the Holy Father through a Sensus Ecclesiae. Bishops without the blessing of Rome are indeed not acknowledged either by the congregation or the priests.”
Today, new state bishops seek the approval from the Vatican in discrete form prior to their appointment by Beijing and the inauguration in their parish.
The old Maoist school-of-thought has, for all practical purposes, collapsed.
In the last 54 years, the Catholic Church could neither be put on Mao’s leash nor cut off from the Vatican. It has not become extinct, but has even rejuvenated itself.
The Chinese who “think around the corner” (Fritz Kraemer), could even see long-term advantages in the warming of relations.
Unlike the predominantly Catholic Poland of the revolutionary with his cross and miter by the name of John Paul II, Catholics present no threat to the claim to power of communists in Beijing—their numbers are simply too small.
Even in the strictly communist and primarily Catholic nation of Cuba, the Vatican and dictator Fidel Castro have neared in the last few years without damage to the powers of state. Alone among communist countries, Castro even ordered a national mourning for John Paul II lasting several days.
Through a normalization of relations, Beijing could recognize three long-term advantages.
- A considerable improvement in the image of Beijing’s national government prior to the important Olympic Games in 2008 by one of the largest, most respected and most influential world religions with more than one billion believers—particularly in the USA, Europe, and South America.
- A respectful analysis of the bitter 100-year period of colonialization in the 19th and 20th centuries and the beginning of a genuine reconciliation with the former colonial powers.
- The integration of an elite, so important for the further progress of the country, which would be comparable the contribution of the Huguenots in the sparse Prussia of Friedrich the Great, which brought about a great leap forward onto the forefront of Europe more than 200 years ago.
It would be very reasonable in this respect for the Vatican to examine critically Beijing’s official criticism of the role played by Catholic missionaries in various epochs, in particular in the 16th and 19th Centuries. In the mid-19th through the 20th Centuries, the soul of China was kicked by the West for 100 years. Protestant proselytization on the part of Anglo/American missionaries was also part of the Western policy of control. In contrast, Catholic missionaries were more restrained. They focused primarily on the Chinese upper-class and aristocracy. Had the Vatican not prohibited the incorporation of Confucian ethics, which are so deeply rooted throughout the entire land, in the Catholic belief system, China would today be the largest Catholic nation in the world.
The beatification of 120 Catholic martyrs by Pope John Paul II on October 1st, 2000—including 85 Chinese men and women and 33 Missionaries—who were hunted down, tormented and murdered during the Boxer Rebellion in Beijing in the year 1900 specifically because of their Christian belief, ran into very sharp criticism by Beijing. An official comment by the Department of State said that they were part of the colonial invasion; their beatification injured the national pride and the dignity of China.
The sharp reaction of China to the representation of Chinese history in Japanese school textbooks this year showed once again how important a condemnation of past colonial crimes and the suppression of China is for the creation of a better future and trusting cooperation.
An apology by Benedict XVI for the sins of European colonialization in China and the accentuation of a genuine reconciliation between China and Western countries would be the best conceivable step for the establishment of diplomatic relations. This corresponds to the basic values of Christian policies of peace and reconciliation. On the occasion of the beatification ceremony on October 1st, 2000, Pope John Paul II said: “This is not the proper point in time to judge historic periods in China. This can and should be done at another.” The proper time has now come for his successor.
The Vatican has already taken steps toward Beijing.
In the case of the late bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang from Shanghai, who was loyal to Rome, the Vatican has not yet appointed a successor, so that the Catholic Church in this very important city is now represented only by an official bishop acknowledged by both sides. Renunciation creates unity in the church.
At the end of October, Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano said that Taiwan is no obstacle for the Vatican. If one is in agreement, the charge d’affaires could go immediately from Taipei to Beijing and take up his responsibilities there. However, he spoke out against the previous demand of Beijing, and said that prior to official discussions with the Vatican, diplomatic relations with Taiwan should not be broken off and the Nuncio moved immediately to Beijing.
The German businessman Dr. Hubertus Hoffmann is Founder and President of the World Security Network Foundation in New York, the largest elite network for foreign and security policy worldwide (www.worldsecuritynetwork.com).