Pope Francis waves from the balcony of St. Peter's basilica during the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" Christmas address and blessing given to the city of Rome and to the World, on Dec. 25, at St. Peter's square in the Vatican. (Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP)
In the past few weeks, rumors have spread about a possible agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China. In an uncommon move, the Vatican has even asked two "underground" bishops to shift aside for two official bishops initially appointed by Beijing.
Many observers have raised concerns about how such a development is problematic. Some highlight that China does not respect religious freedom and others worry that Pope Francis may involuntarily betray the underground side of the Catholic Church in China. The outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen, the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, has not spared efforts and words to criticize Vatican officials explaining how, unlike him, they do not understand the true nature of Chinese leaders and that their rush will harm the church in China.
Following Cardinal Zen's recurrent attacks, many voices rise to warn the Holy See against any agreement that would give dangerous moral support to the current Chinese administration. Ironically, most of these voices are coming from Protestant or secular journalists who sound the alarm bell about the well-being of Chinese Catholics and the pope's moral leadership.
However, to deepen the conversation, we need to distinguish between morality and legality. When a state recognizes another state, it does not mean that it endorses its current administration and agrees with its policy. France has diplomatic relations with the U.S., but French people do not necessarily support all the aspects of President Donald Trump's policy. Still, they recognize him as the legitimate leader of the sovereign and independent United States. Legality and morality are two distinct realms with an overlapping, complicated relationship.
Today, the capacity for national self-determination is recognized through the creation of sovereign states. This international legal category creates virtually autonomous entities allowed to design its own destiny. Yet, the sovereignty of a nation is constantly challenged by other constraints, such as its access to strategic resources or its capacity to secure and control its cyberspace. Sovereignty is nothing self-defined or stable, but is constantly subject to power struggles. At the beginning of the 21st century, one must be aware that the most serious struggle involves the rise of China challenging American hegemony. In this competition, the church faces the constant danger of being used.
To return to the Sino-Vatican dialogue, when journalists and other activists frame this encounter as an issue about morality only, they indeed belittle the legal aspect of such dialogue. More or less consciously, they insidiously deny rights to the Holy See, and therefore to the Holy Father himself, to stand as a sovereign entity. In their eyes, the pope should only be a moral leader telling the world what 'the good' is about. This approach is highly problematic, and those who are Catholic should carefully question it.
First, the pope's mission is to preach the Gospel, the actual coming of Christ and of his kingdom among all nations. This cannot be reduced to what others may define as 'the good' or even as 'freedom.' Christ is more than the Western and modern definition of religious freedom.
Second, the more we present the Sino-Vatican dialogue as a moral issue, the less we acknowledge its legal and diplomatic aspect. By doing so, we erase the fact that the Holy See is a sovereign entity, recognized and protected by international law. This is the result of centuries of effort and sacrifice to grant the pope, and therefore the church, independence. Reducing the Holy See to a moral power is dangerous because it is the first step to subordinate the pope and his action to worldly interests. It denies the pope the right to stand as an independent actor among nations, capable of self-judgment to freely recognize other states and political systems.
While the People's Republic of China is a sovereign entity recognized by hundreds of states, including the U.S., who are so prompt to demonize it, why would the pope not being allowed to treat with it? Indeed, no foreign power or lobby has to right to impose preconditions for a dialogue between the Holy See and China, nor to interfere with it.
Third, the question of sovereignty is at the core of the Christian message. Those who turn to Christ embrace him as their Lord and work for the coming of his kingdom. They are not building a 'paradise on earth,' a world of absolute equality without a center and a master. They are collaborating for the coming of Christ's kingdom. Thus, the sovereignty of the pope is not only a worldly strategy to protect him and the church against secular powers; it is also a theological category to show this factual lordship of Christ, which is already but not yet fully present in this world.
In the Catholic tradition, unlike in the Protestant ones, the lordship of Christ is not only a matter of personal and moral commitment but speaks to the socio-political order. It is objectified and externalized in a legal construction that goes beyond individuals and their particular nation-states through the sovereignty of the pope. No political order, even the modern and liberal one, can fully reflect the presence of the kingdom. The independence of the pope acts as a reminder of this already but not yet achieved presence of Christ's sovereignty. It is not the separation of two worlds, the religious and mundane ones; it is the Catholic way to point out the effective presence of the Lord in our only world today.
In regards to China and the Sino-Vatican relationship, one must remember how the dialogue between Rome and Beijing has been always complicated. The Qing dynasty was neither communist nor atheist and yet, the Chinese Rites controversy was a traumatic experience. The current pope and Chinese administration are not the first ones experiencing how the encounter of China with the church is a very deep and sometimes painful challenging process. Two worldviews, each with a very long and resilient tradition, are on their way toward mutual recognition and appreciation.
Beijing's cautious attitude toward the courtship of the Vatican may indeed be an opportunity for the Holy See to redeploy and translate, in a less Western and nation-state framework, what its Christian sovereignty is about. Since there is no universal and stable definition of sovereignty, but since the lordship of Christ is central to the Christian project, the church needs to patiently explain how and why the pope's sovereignty is important for Catholics and is not a threat to the Chinese nation. And this issue goes far beyond the mere appointment of Catholic bishops.
Finally, debates about Sino-Vatican relations will greatly benefit from being distinguished from the ones involving Hong Kong. It is true that people there are facing a decline in their civil rights and sovereignty. Over the past 20 years, they have found themselves gradually unable to design an appealing social project. If one can truly understand their resentment against Beijing, it is unfair to use the Sino-Vatican dialogue as a stage to criticize their invasive sovereign, the Chinese Communist Party. Both issues must be recognized in their own framework, and the Sino-Vatican dialogue should not be used by Hong Kong people to serve their own needs.
Michel Chambon is a U.S.-based doctoral student who has spent the last two years in China researching for his dissertation on religion in the country.