Pope Francis' China Challenge
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pope Francis' China Challenge


It’s been a tough few decades for the Catholic Church. Religious life in the European heartland has weakened. Many churches have been sold and utilized for commercial use, leaving those who practice their faith intermittently without a well-demarcated place of worship. Europe’s northern Atlantic neighbor mirrors a similarly bleak picture; America’s Catholicism is equally damaged and divided.

In the Asia-Pacific, particularly in the People’s Republic of China, there seems to be a complicated and momentous shift, a growing interest, if not resurgence, in religion and spirituality. Catholicism, one of the five officially recognized religions in the country, boasts roughly 12+ million adherents (Buddhism, which has origins dating back to the Han Dynasty, has the largest number of followers). China’s Catholics, who are very much a part of this new religious landscape, have greater liberties now than in times past.

In the Maoist era, Catholics were forced to go underground, and many church leaders were arrested and their properties confiscated.  Mao’s late wife, Jiang Qing once said, “Christianity in China has been confined to the history section of the museum. It is dead and buried.” Given the long silence during Mao’s reign, it was widely believed that these traditions were no longer to be found.

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The reform and opening period under Deng Xiaoping led to a relaxation of religious and intellectual restrictions. With economic growth, increased civic freedoms and information, Catholicism would again become visible and well established. Still, relations between the Holy See and China have never fully rebounded and the two do not have an official diplomatic relationship.

The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), China’s state-backed Catholic hierarchy which works jointly with the Bureau of Religious Affairs, restricts religious practices to officially approved churches. The Vatican recognizes the authority of the Pope, not the CPA. As a result, China consecrates its own bishops and overrides the decisions made by the Vatican. Because many Catholics believe in papal supremacy, many have remained or relocated to underground churches. This issue presents a major complication between the two countries.

Since they are deemed unlawful, leaders and members of underground churches are often harassed and arrested for church activities. Bishops who have spoken out and have stepped down from the CPA have been detained under house arrest and confinement.

The Catholic Church also has an image problem. The Vatican once prohibited Catholics from honoring Confucius. Furthermore, the church has often been implicated in imperialism, particularly its involvement in the tragic First Opium War of 1839 – 1842. Some of the later missionaries not only brought Christ’s message, but also prized themselves as the carriers of civilization. During the boxer uprising, Catholics were victimized for embodying the foreign threat. After Pope John Paul II canonized 120 martyrs, including foreign missionaries who were killed during the uprising, the People’s Daily rebuked the celebration, saying they deserved the punishment they received. Though the Pope later apologized for the Catholic Church’s historical errors, there remains a belief in China that the papacy has the potential to mobilize supporters and foment discord, similar to the church-inspired Solidarity movement in Poland that brought down the iron curtain.

The Papacy’s China Policy

Today, there is a refreshing change of leadership in the Vatican. Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is a great communicator, and sees himself as an international leader on the world stage. His pastoral role has the potential to help him change the Curia and the operation of the church.  He wants to reform the bureaucracy around him, and is taking steps to confront the financial corruption surrounding the Vatican bank.

In global affairs, the former Argentine bishop weighed in on the implications of war in Syria.  He has also advised President Cristina Fernández on the dispute with the UK over the Falkland Islands. The papacy is making itself relevant again, reminiscent of Ostpolitik, when faith-based initiatives played key roles in international peacemaking. The church has a tremendous temporal power, one that could mediate conflict and solve some of the world’s most intractable crises.

In China, the new leadership should stir optimism. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pontiff. The Jesuits, in the 16th century were the first Catholic order to establish the church in China. While the Pope has yet to make any pronouncements toward Beijing, he and President Xi Jinping have exchanged letters. It is confirmed that South Korea will be the destination of the Pope’s first visit to Asia this summer, and there are currently talks of a stop in Beijing.

The church has a pervasive influence in the Chinese catholic community, and the Pope’s powerful and evocative presence and gesture has the potential to woo China. His papal policy of engagement can create opportunities for regular channels of communication. The challenges of achieving significant dialogue are enormous.  The Vatican is unwilling to sever its ties with Taiwan and give full diplomatic recognition to the PRC. Additionally, the Vatican’s policy has always required that a bishop be ordained with papal approval, which is at odds with the policies of the CCP.

Yet given the extraordinary ecclesiastical growth and strong allegiance to the Vatican, the Pope may be able to further the pretentions of the church by focusing on neither of the aforementioned contentions. Instead, like the early missions of the Jesuits in China before him, Pope Francis might go as a humble emissary eager to carry the church’s message: to encourage the betterment of humanity and neighborly concern. It’s a simple message, but one that can elevate China’s civil society, the conditions of religious life, and even resolve the 63-year impasse.

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