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China and the Vatican: Towards a New Era?

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China Power

China and the Vatican: Towards a New Era?

A closer look at a complex relationship amid talk of an impending rapprochement.

A flurry of recent reports suggests an impending rapprochement between the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China, perhaps as soon as the end of the year. At present, China is still ruled by the avowedly atheistic Communist Party, so the pronouncement by the Vatican’s top diplomat, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, of “hopes and expectations for new developments and a new stage in the relations” between the two countries has stirred intense debate in the Catholic world and set off alarms across the Taiwan Strait.

The Holy See first established diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC) in 1942, during the Second World War. At the time, the government was still located in its wartime capital of Chongqing. The first ambassador, or Apostolic Internuncio, arrived in 1946. After Communist forces defeated the Nationalists in 1949, the Vatican attempted to keep its papal representative on the Mainland. However, this diplomat was unceremoniously expelled two years later. Since then, for over six decades, the Holy See has continued its recognition of the ROC on Taiwan.

These current diplomatic efforts reach far beyond the normal tussle for trade, political cover, or development assistance that countries might engage in when choosing to recognize either Beijing or Taipei. With significant numbers of Catholics already practicing in China—an estimated 12 million, with more than half in underground churches loyal to Rome—the Vatican aims to wedge open the door to the Middle Kingdom and strengthen its connection to the Chinese faith community.

One Relationship, Multiple Lenses

The Holy See, after all, is not just another country. Unlike most governments, its priorities extend past cultivating state-to-state relations and expanding trade, to caring for Catholic communities globally, regardless of citizenship. Therefore, the experience of non-state actors that regularly cross borders, such as multinational companies or international NGOs, could provide an instructive lens for analyzing the Church’s activities in China.

Figuratively speaking, the Catholic Church pitches an ideological “product,” as most religions do: a set of ritual practices and profound beliefs that it spreads globally. While many Western companies have tried to crack the Chinese market of a billion consumers in recent decades, history has shown time and again that Beijing will never let a foreign entity take the lion’s share of the market. Yahoo, Google, and other over-confident Silicon Valley colossi have landed in China with great fanfare, only to see their market share eroded by missteps—or by outright government intervention. Even Uber, which by many accounts made the right moves in terms of localization, was beaten back.

This begs the question: does the Vatican believe it can penetrate the Chinese “marketplace” in a battle of ideas? As a foreign religious institution, would it not be even more suspect than a normal commercial entity?

The obvious, but critical difference between all prior challengers and the Church: faith. Unlike in the Internet wars, users will not easily “flip” from a foreign provider to a local, Beijing-approved alternative. Deep and abiding belief matters, and people care a lot more about their religious practice than their choice of search engine. Thus, the Chinese government lacks sufficient leverage to force changes in market share, political harassment notwithstanding.

More fundamentally, the modern Church has shed its covetous image—it’s been nearly 500 years after Martin Luther hammered his theses onto a cathedral door. Whether allergic to profit-seeking or simply more financially comfortable in this day and age, the Church can afford to be considerably more user-centered than most corporations are. It might care about “page views” or “user engagement” so to speak, but it doesn’t worry as much about “average revenue per user.” Without the short-term tyranny of quarterly earnings, the Vatican can focus on the long game, allowing it to thread the needle very differently than a typical Silicon Valley company would.

Church as NGO

Another useful analogy would be to look at how foreign non-governmental organizations have fared in China in recent years. Overseas NGOs are currently governed by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, but with the passage of the Overseas NGO law in April, they will instead be monitored by the Ministry of Public Security beginning next year. Since Xi Jinping has come to office, the environment for non-profit work has substantially deteriorated. Numerous human rights lawyers and labor activists have been jailed, while legal aid organizations and labor organizing groups have been summarily shut down, despite their pro-social goals of advocating for workers’ interests and upholding basic constitutional rights. This is the environment the Church will enter when it touches down in China.

Consider the fact that religious institutions fall under the purview of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA)—the institution that claims it can regulate Buddhist reincarnation and choose the next Dalai Lama. It is currently revising the national law on religious organizations.

The Church faces serious debates about doctrine and liturgy, implementing new methods of appointing bishops, and Catholicism in society. Having resisted Beijing’s edicts on religion for years, many lay Catholics and clergy are extremely fearful of the compromises that warming ties will bring. Have their decades of sacrifice meant nothing?

Many other issues will also need to be sorted out. Will churches be treated as sanctuaries—including the places of worship of the 6 million Chinese who have braved arrest to stay loyal to Rome? Will underground churches truly become free from political interference? Or will all these efforts be weighed down by government shackles, ideological fenders, and Party-imposed “Chinese characteristics”?

Throughout this negotiation, the Vatican will need to contend with the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a body formed in 1957 to control Catholicism in China and that is fully loyal to the Party. This organization does not accept the primacy of the Pope as the head of the church, disputing his “supreme administrative, legislative and judicial authority” and thus creating a “fundamental divergence of theology between the Patriotic Association and the Roman Catholic Church,” as described by the Cardinal Kung Foundation, an advocacy organization fighting for the rights of underground churches. The Foundation is named for a Chinese cardinal who was persecuted throughout his lifetime.

In most other countries, a government regulator demanding loyalty and subverting a key religious tenet would be an intolerable intrusion on freedom of worship, but to operate in China today, the Catholic Church’s representatives will be forced to compromise by coming to an accord with this fundamentally political entity. In August, the Vatican accepted constraints on episcopal appointments. In the meantime, a number of local governments continue to apply pressure  on Catholic and other Christian communities.

Unlike most NGOs, though, the Church isn’t bent on changing Chinese society by advocating for rights—at least not directly. The Bishop of Hong Kong John Tong recently quoted a 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics written by Pope Benedict claiming that “The mission of the Catholic Church is not to change the institution or administrative agency of nations. It cannot and should not intervene in political struggles.” Abuse and imprisonment of Catholic priests does occur from time to time, such as the case of Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang, appointed by the Vatican and then imprisoned by the Chinese government for many years, or Msgr. Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who thunderously and unexpectedly rejected the CPCA upon his 2012 ordination as a bishop in Shanghai, and was subsequently placed under house arrest. But generally speaking, Catholic priests focus on ministering to their flock, rather than on civil action, so they are less likely to be thrown in jail than are human rights lawyers.

Also distinct from service-oriented NGOs, it is unclear to what degree the Church in China will be licensed to carry out a mission of charity, as it had historically done in the early twentieth century, before it was pushed out of China. (The story of its dismantling by Socialist China in the 1950s is quite startling.) In this case, the direct public services delivered by Catholic institutions might be more limited, but its indirect impact on society will be through believers who behave with more grace, generosity, and social commitment.

With a visible global network and open lines to the Chinese government the Catholic Church is infinitely better connected than most NGOs. Though things can never truly be safe, by focusing on inner lives rather than external activities that challenge the government, the Church may likely sidestep the challenges faced by other non-profits.

Institution on a Mission

While the Vatican eschews profit, and ministers to an existing community of followers, it retains an expansionary zeal. This generates a third lens through which to view its activities—as a missionary force. Given the Church’s history of enabling imperial adventures, forcibly converting Native Americans, and aiding land-grabs, it’s never quite comfortable to think of the Church looking to convert a continent full of “unsaved souls.”

To bridge this discomfort, we might look instead at the social good that arises with worship and collective ritual, an idea not too distant from historical Confucian practice. An expanding Catholicism promulgates additional opportunities for spiritual cultivation in a country that sorely needs it. With political ideology unable to inspire people to rise above their basest natures and manifest their better selves, perhaps religion will prove to be a helpful salve. Though Communist in name, the People’s Republic actually practices some of the most voracious, unfettered capitalism on the planet. Christianity and other religions provide outlets for regulating emotions and inter-personal behavior.

Just as importantly, they also encourage belief in higher ideals—a higher law—outside the scuffles of everyday life. That kind of moral guidance helps to combat greed and push back against the vacuous and materialistic outlook on life dominant in China today. Note too that the primacy of canon law in Europe became instrumental to developing the concept of “rule of law.” Finally, some might suggest that religious freedom for one sect might trickle down to become greater religious freedom for all.

Moral Questions Remain

Past commentators have incisively questioned how the Vatican’s dealings with China will influence geopolitics and Cross-Strait relations. If we look beyond foreign relations to consider the Church as a mixture of fervent missionary, dedicated NGO, and multinational brand manager—and not just as a state—its actions shift into clearer focus. Since it must contend with the challenges faced by all of these sectors, it must navigate carefully to avoid the fate of Google, Uber, or China’s many grassroots social groups.

Yet whether these particular maneuvers are successful or not, deep moral quandaries must ultimately still be addressed: How should countries confront international bullies? Will the Church inadvertently grant legitimacy to dictatorship? If it is required to break off relations with Taiwan, a vibrant, democratic island where 23 million human beings reside—including 300,000 Catholics—would it be appropriate to abandon those loyal followers and a committed ally?

It is certainly possible to achieve creative accommodations for the Church in China while still recognizing Taiwan—or even taking a third route, by granting recognition to both sides of the Strait, thus gently nudging toward a reset of relations.

The Vatican has declared that its constituency is the Catholic community, but in reality, the audience watching is far wider: a global public that has supported Pope Francis and his progressive, non-judgmental approach to social, religious and environmental affairs. One hopes a Church under his direction will not stumble on this challenging question.

As Cardinal Parolin intoned in his speech previewing reconciliation with China, the Vatican seeks “the good of Chinese Catholics … the good of the entire Chinese people, and … harmony of the whole society.” The sentiment is noble, but great uncertainty remains over whether the present strategy of optimistic engagement, more skeptical negotiation, or a principled distance will better accomplish this task.

Kevin Hsu is a Lecturer in International Policy Studies and Urban Studies at Stanford University, where he co-founded the Human Cities Initiative.