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Call for new dialogue may go unheeded, say commentators

China observers question timing of cardinal's message

Cardinal Filoni extended an olive branch to China, while reiterating the Vatican position Cardinal Filoni extended an olive branch to China, while reiterating the Vatican position
  • China
  • November 13, 2012
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Observers of the Church in China have expressed reservations over Cardinal Fernando Filoni’s recent message to China, in which he called for a resumption of dialogue, fearing that poor timing will have reduced its effectiveness.

The Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples released his article on October 25. Sister Beatrice Leung Kit-fun, a professor of politics in Macau, said the gesture, though well-intentioned, may have been flawed by an insufficient grasp of China’s current situation.

“The state leaders were busy on the eve of the national congress [November 8-15] as they only finalized the list of candidates for the Politburo standing committee at the last minute,” said the Precious Blood nun.

“They are very likely to turn a deaf ear to his call now, though they may reconsider it later when the new leadership discusses religious affairs.”

She also expressed pessimism on any significant progress in Church-state relations, predicting that China’s authorities “will tighten control on ideology in future to maintain internal stability.”

In her view, the April communiqué from the Vatican’s Commission for the Catholic Church in China, which emphasized that “evangelization cannot be achieved by sacrificing essential elements of the Catholic faith and discipline,” was sufficiently clear and adequate.

“The cardinal’s message is tantamount to a Chinese idiom,” she said. “It is like painting legs on a snake.”

Anthony Lam Sui-ki, senior researcher at the Hong Kong diocese’s Holy Spirit Study Centre, agrees that this is an inconvenient time for China to respond to Cardinal Filoni’s message.

“The Beijing authorities have all kinds of urgent issues to deal with now,” he said. “Do they have spare time to handle Sino-Vatican relations?”

However, he acknowledged that the cardinal’s letter was a positive attempt to express his hope for dialogue while pointing out there are stumbling blocks.

“We have to be patient,” he said. “Even if China remains silent, I believe his message will still arouse some attention.”

Another Hong Kong-based observer, Kwun Ping-hung, pointed out that while Cardinal Filoni called for fresh dialogue, he also reiterated the Church’s preconditions and stressed the Vatican’s position by mentioning the three stumbling blocks: the state’s control over the Church; the appointment of bishop candidates; and the interference of illegitimate bishops in episcopal consecrations.

“Even if Beijing wishes to respond, one can hardly be optimistic that it will forsake its bottom line which is incompatible with the Vatican’s position,” he said.

He speculated that some ‘open’ bishops may feel relieved of the pressure to quit the Catholic Patriotic Association, as they would sense the Vatican’s eagerness for dialogue that was apparent from Cardinal Filoni’s message.

On the other hand, the message may prompt the helpless “unregistered” Church community to get closer to the government, so whether the article is helping reconciliation between the two split communities is questionable, he said.

However, Ren Yanli, a retired researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, has a different view. He believes the cardinal clearly stated the Church’s principles and position in his message, though “the underground Catholics may think it’s too vague while the open Catholics may think it’s too strong.”

Ren also showed appreciation for Cardinal Filoni’s initiative to break the deadlock between China and the Vatican and commended the timing of his suggestion to create a high-level commission for dialogue, just at the moment of the Communist party’s leadership transition.

“The goodwill gesture may attract the Chinese leaders’ attention and benefit the development of relations,” he said.

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Prospects for China-Vatican dialogue are bleak, say clergy
Vatican offers olive branch to China
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