But traditionalists fear that principles have been sold out
by ERASMUS- The Economist
MANY recent reports about religion in China have concerned repression, from the mass internment of Muslims in the north-west to the demolition or closure of Protestant churches. But in recent days there has been a breakthrough, albeit one whose details are very hard to fathom, in relations between the Chinese government and the Holy See.
The world’s most populous country and the world’s largest Christian body have negotiated for years with at least two aims in mind: establishing full diplomatic relations and resolving the deep division among China’s 12m-or-so Catholics. The division pits bishops who are appointed by the Chinese state but unrecognised by the Vatican, against “underground” prelates who see themselves as answerable only to Rome.
Under a provisional deal announced in outline at the weekend, Pope Francis has accepted the legitimacy of seven bishops appointed by the Beijing authorities in exchange for a say in how bishops in China will be chosen in future. As a result, it seems inevitable that some underground bishops will have to step aside in favour of state-approved ones: that will be a bitter pill for some Chinese Catholics to swallow.
Vatican officials were at pains to stress that the accord was the start of a process, not the conclusion. It does not amount to the establishment of diplomatic ties; nor is it predicated on an immediate severing of ties between the Holy See and Taiwan, a step which Beijing has always demanded as a prerequisite for any real progress.
As defenders of the deal immediately pointed out, this is the first time the Chinese authorities have formally accepted the idea of the Vatican playing some role in the administration of Chinese Catholicism. But there is still complete uncertainty about how the Holy See would exercise its influence in the appointment of bishops. Would it, for example, have the power to veto a candidate who was favoured by Beijing’s secular authorities? If there is any clear understanding on this matter, it is being kept secret.
In some quarters, the agreement was seen as an outright betrayal of those Catholics, lay and clerical, who have taken the hard road of persecution rather than compromise with the authorities. One of the sharpest critics, as expected, is Cardinal Joseph Zen, a retired, 86-year-old prelate who lives in Hong Kong. As the deal was about to be announced, he told Reuters: “They’re giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal.”
Meanwhile Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, urged people to react calmly to the agreement and see it as a stepping stone. “We are not so naive as to think that from now on, everything is going to go well,” he said, “but it seems to us that this is the right direction.”
For religion-freedom watchers, perhaps the biggest concern is that by agreeing in effect to co-manage Catholicism in China with the state, the Holy See will deny itself the right to speak out against religious persecution of all kinds in that country, which generally seems to be intensifying.
Some see irony in the fact that the deal was announced while Pope Francis was visiting Lithuania, where he praised the long, courageous struggle of local Christians to keep the faith alive in the face of Soviet repression.
At the same time, the Holy See obviously regards a sound working relationship with a rising superpower as essential to its role as a constructive force in world affairs that speaks out on topics like climate change, migrant welfare and poverty.
As China and other authoritarian countries grow stronger, the trade-off between diplomatic realism and Christian principle will only get harder.