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Will China change its tune on the Vatican?

Lack of diplomatic progress is a product of repression

Will China change its tune on the Vatican?
Lucia Cheung, Hong Kong

March 15, 2013

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Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis on Wednesday. On Thursday the boss of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping became the new President of China. Their elections will affect the lives of billions of people.

The Chinese print media only carried the news of the new pope on Friday because of the time difference between Europe and Asia.

As a long-time Church media worker, seeing the two news stories juxtaposed and covering the entire front page of a Hong Kong newspaper, I feel that now is both a moment for hope as well as a moment to sigh.

Coming from Latin America and not being a curial cardinal, Pope Francis may not know too much about the complexity of the Church in China. But I have no doubt he will be concerned about a local Church where an estimated eight million Catholics are living under an authoritarian regime.

Perhaps it is the will of Providence. Besides having had the chance to collaborate in post-Synodal meetings since 2005, Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun told us that he got the chance to sit next to the then Cardinal Bergoglio during a farewell event for Pope Benedict and spoke about China Church issues.

The annual plenary assembly of the Vatican’s Commission of the Catholic Church in China, which was supposed to meet in April, was postponed when Pope Benedict XVI renounced his Petrine ministry. When a new date is rescheduled, I expect Pope Francis will take particular interest to gain a much better understanding of the China Church.

Yet an important task for him is to identify, with wisdom, the real situation in China.

The voices of ordinary Catholics are generally difficult to hear due to language barriers.

Sometimes, Church affairs are complicated because of the vested interests of individuals who try to influence the Universal Church through different channels. Thus, in handling China Church affairs there is a need to look deep under the surface with great care.

Xi’s resume shows he was sent to work in Shaanxi province when young and then served at different levels in governments in Hebei, Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, and in Shanghai municipality.

All these places are strongholds of the Catholic Church, especially the unregistered Catholic community. I have good reasons to believe he will be aware of the complexity of the Catholic Church.

However, we should not forget that Xi is merely a figurehead under the collective leadership of the seven-member Politburo. There are also several entities responsible for religious affairs: namely the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the Communist’s United Front Work Department.

A typical example of the complexity of the China Church was last year’s incident concerning Coadjutor Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai. His movements were restricted almost immediately after he declared he was leaving the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which advocates an independent Church, during his episcopal ordination. This was regarded as a highly sensitive political incident and has yet to be resolved.

Since Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, there have been calls on the internet for the new pope and the new Chinese leader to put aside historical burdens and look ahead.

I cannot help but sigh. What are these people actually referring to when saying “historical burden”?  

Do they mean excommunicating illicit bishops who defied the Holy See’s warnings and were ordained without papal mandate? Is opposing the Patriotic Association, an entity that advocates an independent Church, a burden that the Holy See is to be blamed for? Who creates these burdens in the first place?

Cardinal Zen is right. He stressed that “on China-Vatican relations, we [the Church] don’t have any problem. It is entirely the Chinese government who doesn’t cooperate.

“When people ask me about this issue, I always say that it is not the problem of the pope. The Holy See is also open to this. It is the Chinese Communist Party who does not change that makes dialogue impossible.”

Indeed, the message of the Chinese government to the new pope yesterday showed no change at all.

While the Foreign Ministry spokesperson offered congratulations, she reiterated old tunes: to sever so-called diplomatic relations with Taiwan and not to interfere in China’s internal affairs.

Like many other issues that blight the ruling Communist Party, the problems in China-Vatican relations need certain kinds of changes to resolve. But the ball is in China’s court.

High expectations regarding China-Vatican relations often surface when there is a new pope or a new Chinese president. However, unless there is radical change on religious policy and on the freedom of the people in China, these expectations are all but unrealistic.

Lucia Cheung is the China bureau chief for based in Hong Kong 

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