The Vatican and the Chinese government are in talks about resuming ties, which were officially severed in 1951. The major roadblock to better China-Holy See relations is the status of bishops and underground churches in China. Some bishops were appointed by Beijing, others by the Vatican, while a few have gained tacit approval from both. How these current bishops will be recognized and how new bishops are appointed are key questions.
The Vatican should work with Beijing to unify Catholics
However, there are wider concerns about what these negotiations mean for Catholics in China and the Catholic Church overall. The Communist government has long been wary of religious groups, due to historical examples of churches as bases for political movements. The authority of the Pope, who does not answer to Beijing, heightens the government’s concerns.
Beijing has refused to cede control of churches, has named its own bishops without papal approval and formed its own “official” Catholic Church, run by the government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association. Meanwhile, underground churches loyal to the Vatican formed throughout China.
The loudest voices on thawing relations seem to have come from outside mainland China. They see the Pope’s actions as bowing to China. But the priority of the Vatican should be the Catholic Church and its members. Catholicism has a long, proud history in China, and while some might see an agreement as abandoning faithful Catholics facing persecution, I see it as a first step in a long process towards revitalizing the church in China.
I was raised Catholic prior to the founding of the People’s Republic. The village in Liaoning, where my father was born, is home to a church built by mid-19th century Jesuits. I attended schools run by Catholic missionaries. My father’s friend, Cardinal Paul Yu-pin, helped me to come to the United States for school. He later baptized my son in the US. I owe a great deal to the Catholic Church in China, and it has been extremely saddening to see the turmoil facing Chinese Catholics.
It is long past time for healing and rejuvenation of the Catholic Church in China. China is known for great philosophies like Confucianism but religions, like Buddhism and Christianity, were all brought in from other countries. For Catholicism to make inroads in China, the Jesuits had to adapt to differences in language and culture. It therefore seems antithetical to the Catholic missionary legacy to keep the door shut to an entire country. Just because the state does not fully accept the religion does not mean the Catholic Church should stay away.
Opponents argue that by dealing with China, the Vatican is tacitly accepting the government’s actions and ignoring its lack of religious freedom.
Recognition of and communication with a country, however, does not equal endorsement of its policies. What it does mean is a seat at the table and ability to more directly engage the church in China. The Pope’s absence does nothing to help the church there.
The Catholic Church has historically engaged governments they don’t agree with, and this is not the first country where the appointment of bishops has required negotiation and compromise. This is how diplomacy works. After all, like more than 100 other countries, the US diplomatically recognizes the government of the People’s Republic of China while condemning many of the state’s actions.
Yet critics expect the Holy See to forgo ties with the country housing 20% of the world’s population as a way of taking a moral stand. In my mind, refusing diplomacy to maintain a public image would be the greater disservice to Chinese Catholics. Diplomacy takes time.
While dealing with Beijing, the Pope can’t forget the underground Catholics. But, ultimately, a unified Chinese Catholic Church with open ties to the Vatican will only make the Catholic Church stronger. I sincerely wish that, in my lifetime, Pope Francis can visit China and, perhaps, even that old church in my father’s hometown.
Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress and former university librarian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation. This opinion first appeared in the South China Morning Post.