Will the Catholic Church in China outlast the Chinese Communist Party

It’s obvious even to casual observers, that Xi Jinping is tightening the noose around the neck of everyone in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), creating a spooky, controlled society that surpasses the worst excesses of Maoist China.

Jul 04, 2019

By Fr Michael Kelly, SJ
It’s obvious even to casual observers, that Xi Jinping is tightening the noose around the neck of everyone in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), creating a spooky, controlled society that surpasses the worst excesses of Maoist China.

It would appear that the Vatican recognises that too. Not that it needs much reminding of just what has happened to Catholics throughout the 20th Century in sundry Communist dictatorships.

In a statement issued on June 27, the Holy See faced up to the situation. The Chinese Government is obliging Catholic clerics, along with all the other religious officials in China, to register with the Government and sign a document affirming support for the very things that Catholics in China have held out against since the 1950s.

Since the Communist Party gained control of China and rolled out its Leninist control structure in the 1950s, the mantra has been the Three Self principles of self-government (independent of any non-Chinese authority), self-financing (independent of foreign sources) and self-propagation (only local people involved in mission).

Last year, in an unprecedented move for the Catholic Church with the PRC, the Vati-can signed an agreement with China’s Foreign Ministry — not its United Front Work Department or the State Administration for Religious Affairs — that formally recognised what had been happening in fact, on and off, since the 1980s, with joint government and Vatican approval of episcopal appointments.

This latest intrusion by the thought police in the United Front Working Department has prompted the Vatican to publish a reply to the initiative.

The Vatican’s response seems to approve of at least two positions – compliance with the government request and conscientious objection – as defensible and leaves the decision to individuals and dioceses in the PRC.

It will provoke a variety of reactions. The chorus convinced that Pope Francis is, at best, naïve will chant “I told you so!” and will smugly congratulate itself that they were right all along: you can’t trust the Communists.

The chorus might even go so far as to say that this is just part of the Pope’s Jesuit mythology about China and his wish to be seen in the illustrious tradition of Jesuit missionaries to the Middle Kingdom.

Others who welcomed the long-awaited signing last year will not be completely surprised and will rightly point out that the agreement was “provisional” and only addressed one issue – the selection of bishops by mutual agreement which is in fact a centuries, if not millennium, old practice in the appointment of bishops in the Church.

But the fundamental problem is that the PRC has no respect for the rule of law and simply operates according to law of rules which always change. The Chinese, as the current Hong Kong demonstrations vividly show, enter agreements and then unilaterally walk away from them and think nobody noticed.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs negotiated the provisional agreement. In China, those wishing to settle scores will wait months or years till they can have their vindictive revenge. It would appear that that is happening now.

In the meantime, the Vatican is actually left where it's always been in dealings with China over the centuries – vulnerable and with few cards to play. It was through persevering in a conversation over many years that the provisional agreement was finalised.

And perseverance in that conversation was motivated by one of the central and guiding principles of the thought and spirituality of Pope Francis – as pointed out by Robert Mickens in his Letter from Rome: time is more important than space.

Nothing of lasting value happens quickly; everything requires extensive and inclusive engagement if it is to be sustainable; the Vatican’s engagement with China is centuries old and it has outlasted dynasties, with all its achievements and reversals; the Vatican is in this for the long haul, one that will outlast current political arrangements in the PRC that are facing challenging times today.

China’s three great challenges, to which its government seems to have no answers yet, are its indebtedness (a 250 per cent to 300 per cent debt to GDP depending on who does the as-sessment), its aging population which the abolition of the one child policy has done nothing to change; and now the trade war with the USA which also coincides with the eclipse of China as the manufacturing hub of the world and so a massively profitable exporter.

To this cocktail of pressures add the enduring paranoia of the Chinese Communist Party since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, the centuries long fears in Chinese governments of the destabilising effect of religious minorities (and today seen in all its horror in the treatment of the Muslim Uyghurs in the camps in Xinjiang) and the always active rivalry within and between PRC factions.

The external and internal threats are being handled as only a totalitarian power knows how to: repression by command and control.

What is the Vatican to do? The choices are few. But there is one this Pope will not adopt, as he has already said. He has conceded that the provisional agreement and all that went into reaching it may end in failure. But he is certain that failure will also result from not engaging with China.

It is the first law in any negotiation: walk away from the table and you've lost your argument and your position – in industrial relations, in politics, in interpersonal and family relations. And it will happen in the Church’s dealings with China.

There are millions of Catholics in China. The Church has been in China in one form or another for 1500 years, often disappearing through violent suppression only to reappear later in another time and another guise.

We are in another chapter of this saga. My betting is the Catholic Church in China will outlast the Chinese Communist Party. The only question is this: as what? --LCI (international.la-croix.com)

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