Justice needed in Sino-Vatican reconciliation

A letter from a Hong Kong religious expert to his student discussing the Holy See's negotiations with Beijing
Justice needed in Sino-Vatican reconciliation

Catholics perform ceremonies on Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, at Beijing's government-sanctioned South Cathedral on Feb. 14. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)

Dear Jia-ming,

The last time I wrote to you was about one and half years ago. For the last six months, I have been enjoying my sabbatical and have left Hong Kong to concentrate on my writing, so it was unexpected to receive your letter.

You are right that China and the Vatican are expected to sign an agreement on the appointment of bishops very soon.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, has openly expressed his concerns, which are in sharp contrast to the optimistic attitude of high-ranking officials in the Vatican.

You, as a Catholic, asked for my opinion on this controversy. I think we should not overlook the deep meanings behind the deal.

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Sino-Vatican relations have gone through a tortuous path for more than half a century. After the Chinese communists took power, many clerics and believers suffered the political impact and were arrested and charged with being "counter-revolutionary groups" by the government, which refused to be influenced by other political powers.

The government supported the establishment of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 1957 and violated the Catholic tradition by "self-electing and self-ordaining" bishops for the first time the next year in order to divide a church with an allegiance to the pope by faith.

Since then, Sino-Vatican relations have reached their lowest point in history, but many clerics and believers, even though in the worst situation, have been maintaining their faith and manifesting the virtue of faith with unswerving determination.

This religious interference by the communist regime caused today's historical phenomenon that the patriotic church and the underground church coexist within the Catholic Church in China.

Jia-ming, do you still remember when I reminded the class to avoid simple dual thinking? There are Catholics loyal to the faith in the patriotic church, and I also pointed out that both the patriotic association and the bishops' conference, as the patriotic religious organizations sponsored by the government, are actual parts of the party-state religious management system rather than pure religious groups.

The existence of these patriotic religious organizations reveals that the party-state would not allow any civic ones that are completely independent and autonomous. So-called "independence and autonomy" and "running religions in a democratic way" are only political slogans in disguise.

The authorities are using different means, including the appointment of bishops, to control religious affairs, reflecting that full religious freedom in China has crumbled.

One focal point in the controversy over the Sino-Vatican agreement is the consensus reached between China and the Vatican on the appointment of bishops.

Could it be regarded optimistically as the way to unite the Catholic Church of China? In particular, is it fair and reasonable to demand that the underground church, which has been suffering for its faith for a long time, must sacrifice itself to promote this unity?

The agreement allows the pope to execute his power to approve the appointment of bishops. However, those familiar with political and religious relations in China would understand that the government would never give up its actual power on religious leaders appointments.

Thus, the candidates list sent to the pope in future through two processes of "democratic election" and "appointment by the Chinese Bishops' Conference" will certainly undergo screening by the United Front Department and the Religious Affairs Bureau.

Although the deal allows the pope to have the final say on appointments, the bishop endorsed by the government will surely be a candidate who has a very high security coefficient on politics.

Concessions made by the Vatican are far more than those made by China because the pope has to exonerate seven illegitimate bishops and ask two underground bishops to give up their episcopacy.

This move is apparently a kind of reconciliation for reaching unity, but it will greatly hurt the underground church, which has been maintaining its faith for more than half a century. Would reconciliation without justice be the foundation for real reconciliation? For so many clerics and believers who have been paying the price of persisting with their faith, how do they feel to be sacrificed?

Even more serious is that the deal would push the underground church, which was originally outside the state-party system, into the "bird cage" by having to accept the religious administrative system's full controls. Is it merely wishful thinking for Vatican sources to hope to fight for expanding the bird cage in the future?

A Vatican official recently blindly praised China, which was regarded as political flattery intended to appease Beijing. All these justifications trying to rationalize the non-reciprocal agreement completely ignore the political reality in a country where religions are under control.

I remember George Bernard Shaw, a Nobel laureate in literature, once said: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Those opposing the non-reciprocal agreement today would certainly be considered to be not pragmatic or unable to see the big picture and understand tactics. However, can those who claim to be pragmatic really bring about good changes? Should ideals on faith not be the power to change the world? In fact, the church's history has given us a clear answer.

Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, rejecting temptations of the wicked — not turning stones into food for his survival; not manifesting his own power to test the Lord; not bowing to the wicked for power and wealth.

Let us consider God's teachings at Lent — "… lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" — and sincerely pray for the Church of China.

Your teacher

Ying Fuk-tsang is director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Source: "Hong Kong Letter," a radio program, produced by Radio Television Hong Kong — a department under the Hong Kong Government Commerce and Economic Development Bureau.

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