Rome and Beijing close to historic deal

Rumours of a deal between the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China — a reconciliation between the world’s most populous nation and the world’s l

Feb 15, 2018

Rumours of a deal between the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China — a reconciliation between the world’s most populous nation and the world’s largest single religious organisation — have hardened. The Chinese government-controlled media are reporting that the Holy See and Beijing are willing, in principle, to exchange ambassadors, and that the schism between the unofficial Catholic Church faithful to Rome and the government-approved Patriotic Catholic Church, which is ultimately controlled by the Communist Party, would then come to an end.

The position of Catholic bishops is crucial. Some are approved by the government but not the Vatican, some the other way round, and some by both. The Vatican is said to be willing to ask certain bishops loyal to it to stand aside. Their jurisdiction would pass to government-approved bishops, which Rome would then recognise and take into its system.

The two Catholic communities would come together as one body under one hierarchy.

Many Catholics have stayed loyal to Rome at great cost to themselves over the years, including spells in prison for priests and bishops. In a sense, they have won, but they are entitled to say it does not feel like that. A sense of betrayal has been given voice by Cardinal Joseph Zen, retired Archbishop of Hong Kong. Whether that is justified depends on the terms of the agreement. How far has the Catholic Church had to compromise, for instance, on the principle that Catholic bishops answer to the Pope, the centre of unity, whose assent is required for their appointment? Will the Church be fully free to preach the Gospel?

There are issues on the Chinese side too. Under President Xi Jinping, China has been heading towards a more authoritarian version of a one-party state. Allowing a large religious body some freedom of action could seem to contradict that totalitarian tendency. On the other hand, Xi Jinping seems to favour traditional values and wants to crack down on corruption and dishonesty. He may see Christianity, which has enjoyed phenomenal growth in recent years, as a valuable ally. He may also think the dispute with Rome over spiritual allegiance stands in the way; and that to have China branded as a persecutor of Catholics is not good for its global reputation.

But the position of bishops loyal to Rome, two of whom it is thought are being asked to stand aside, is an awkward one. Pope Francis has said he does not want a repeat of the Mindszenty affair — in which the Primate of Hungary, wanted by the Communist authorities, had to leave his safe haven in the American embassy in Budapest and was stripped of his status by Pope Paul VI as part of a deal to normalise Church-State relations.

Overcoming the schism between the two versions of Catholicism in China would be an epoch-making development; it would be good for Chinese Catholics and it would even be good for Chinese Communists too. Learning to tolerate differences of opinion is part of the modernisation that China needs. But for the two communities of Chinese Catholics to be reconciled without being hamstrung by a sense of a betrayal will depend on how tight a rein the Chinese Communist Party chooses to exercise over Chinese Catholicism. And how firmly the Vatican insists on its freedom. -- Tablet (used with permisson)

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