Living Church - Contribute to help UCA News
Living Church - Contribute to help UCA News
Living Church - Contribute to help UCA News
Living Church - Contribute to help UCA News
UCA News


Signals Point To Change In Relations Between China And Holy See

Updated: July 04, 2005 05:00 PM GMT
Support Asia's largest network of Catholic journalists and editors
Support Asia's largest network of Catholic journalists and editors
Share this article :

There are signs something is changing in relations between China and the Holy See, sparking new hope that doors may be opening for negotiations to establish diplomatic relations between the two sides.

One such sign concerns the appointment of bishops in mainland China, a matter of utmost importance to the Vatican and a highly sensitive issue for the Chinese authorities.

Far from the international media spotlight, several positive developments have been emerging during the past six months that seem to suggest a change is taking place in Beijing´s approach to the question.

The world´s attention was drawn to this matter on June 28 when the new auxiliary bishop of Shanghai was consecrated in Saint Ignatius Cathedral in the Xujiahui area of downtown Shanghai. Bishop Joseph Xing Wenzhi, 42, was appointed with the approval of Rome and Beijing, after open Church and underground Church leaders reached agreement. The young prelate was ordained by 89-year-old Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai.

The appointment of Bishop Xing, however, was not the first achieved with joint approval from Beijing and Rome for new bishops in open Church. Vatican sources have told UCA News in Rome there have been "a number of situations" where agreement on episcopal appointments was first reached by underground and open Church leaders and that Bishop Xing´s is only the most recent one.

In all instances, the Vatican has insisted that a validly consecrated and legitimized bishop with two co-ordainers who also are legitimate and validly consecrated ordain new bishops, and this has happened.

UCA News in Rome has also been told that the State Administration of Religious Affairs in Beijing agreed this past January-February that three underground Church bishops could work openly. The three were approved after Rome and the open and underground Church agreed on candidates acceptable to the government. All three were asked to sign a statement about obeying the country´s laws and the like. The Vatican´s Secretariat of State examined the statement and found it acceptable.

These cases evidence that China and the Vatican have achieved some progress concerning this most important matter. It may be too soon to say a firm pattern is emerging, but this development is both "interesting and promising," as one source said.

As in other matters involving civil authorities and the Catholic Church in China, this situation can vary from province to province. Even so, the signs suggest that both sides are adopting a more pragmatic approach and reaching mutually acceptable solutions. Given the history of their relationship during the past half-century, this is no small achievement.

A second sign that China´s approach to the Vatican may be changing emerged when Pope John Paul II died on April 2. The next day, both officially approved organizations of the Catholic Church in China -- Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and Bishops´ Conference of the Catholic Church in China -- sent a telegram to the Vatican Secretary of State expressing their sadness at his passing.

More significantly, however, Liu Jianchao, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, on April 3 publicly expressed condolences on the John Paul´s death and recalled how the pope had apologized for wrongs done by Western missioners to China. Liu said that the apology was constructive toward improving Sino-Vatican relations. Pope John Paul offered that apology on October 24, 2001, in his "Message for the fourth centenary of the arrival in Beijing of the great missionary and scientist, Matteo Ricci SJ."

Liu identified two pre-conditions for the Vatican to establish relations between China and the Holy See: sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan and not interfere in China´s internal affairs. "We are willing to improve relations with the Vatican on the basis of these two pre-conditions," Liu said. "We hope that under the leadership of the new pope conditions for improved bilateral relations can be created."

A Vatican official recently told me: "This was a significant gesture. It was the first time this has happened. It would have been unthinkable in 1978 when John Paul II was elected."

Soon after April 2, the Vatican began to feel that Beijing was considering sending a delegation to John Paul´s funeral, as most other states in the world were doing. But hope that such might happen rapidly vanished when Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan´s president, insisted on attending the funeral.

Chen´s decision put the Vatican in a difficult position. The Holy See could not refuse the leader of the Republic of China, with whom it has had diplomatic relations. However, it made its point at the funeral: no Vatican official met the Taiwanese president except those involved in protocol.

After the funeral, the Vatican conveyed to Taiwan authorities that "it would be good" if they send a lower-level delegation to the inauguration ceremony of Pope Benedict XVI. They accepted this advice.

In fact, the Vatican suggested this to Taiwan in the hope that China might take advantage and send its own delegation to the inauguration. But the Chinese chose not to seize the moment and was one of the few states without representation at both John Paul´s funeral and Benedict´s inauguration.

All the while, Chinese authorities closely followed the events unfolding in Rome. In what could be called a third sign, on April 20, the day after Pope Benedict XVI was elected, Qin Gang, another Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said, "We express our warm greetings to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who was just elected to be the new pope."

Qin went on to address the question of normalizing relations between China and the Holy See. He said: "Firstly, the Holy See has to break ´diplomatic ties´ with Taiwan, and confirm that the People´s Republic of China is the only legitimate government of China, of which Taiwan is an inseparable part. Secondly, the Holy See should promise not to interfere with China´s internal affairs, in the name of religion or other." Qin then added: "We hope that the Holy See under the leadership of the new pope will create favorable conditions for normalization of China-Holy See relations."

Also on April 20, the government-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Bishops´ Conference of the Catholic Church in China sent a congratulatory message to the Holy See.

Though China was the great absentee at John Paul´s funeral and Benedict´s inauguration, the Vatican nevertheless detected what it considered to be a new attitude in Beijing toward the Holy See, and it moved rapidly to welcome any Chinese advance in that direction.

For this reason, Pope Benedict deliberately inserted a sentence into his May 12 address to the Diplomatic Corps (ambassadors from 174 countries) accredited to the Holy See. In that sentence, he invited states that still have no diplomatic relations with the Holy See to establish such links.

Some of those states actually "associated themselves" with the funeral and inauguration, and he thanked them for those gestures. He then extended "greetings to the civil authorities" of all states still lacking diplomatic links with the Holy See, saying he hopes "to see them represented very soon to the Holy See." His words were primarily addressed to the Chinese authorities, but also intended for the 26 other countries that do not yet have diplomatic ties with the Holy See, including Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.

That key sentence was inserted "with China in mind," a senior Vatican source confirmed to UCA News. "We are eager to establish diplomatic relations with China, but it remains to be seen whether China is ready."

Two days later, on May 14, the Chinese Ambassador to Italy, Dong Jinyi, told the Rome daily Il Messaggero: "We appreciate the openings of the pope to China. It is necessary to dialogue and strengthen reciprocal trust if one wishes to arrive at the normalization of relations."

The ambassador also restated China´s demand that the Holy See break diplomatic links with Taiwan: "We will go nowhere if the Vatican continues to maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. For us, it is a vital question (because) it relates to the territorial integrity of China."

He added: "There are no problems in re-establishing diplomatic relations, if only the Vatican cuts relations with Taiwan and accepts not interfering in the internal affairs of the country, not even in the name of religion."

The ambassador also pointed out: "We know that the desire of Benedict XVI to normalize relations between the Vatican and China is genuine. We hope that his words will be followed by concrete deeds."

However, Dong excluded the idea that Chinese authorities may invite the pope to visit Beijing. "It is not possible," he said, because the pope is not only a spiritual leader but also head of the Vatican state, which "at this moment has diplomatic relations with Taiwan."

Nonetheless, he welcomed efforts "to make contacts, to work to construct the dialogue and reciprocal trust for the normalization of relations ... Even if it takes time, it´s a road that has to be traveled."

The ambassador´s remarks echoed the words of the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman after Benedict´s election. But the comments on Taiwan seemed to ignore what Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, declared publicly in February 1999 when he expressed the readiness of the Holy See to move its nunciature from Taipei to Beijing, and to do so "in the morning" if China agrees to establish diplomatic relations with it.

The Holy See established diplomatic ties with the Republic of China in 1942, and that continues, but never with the People´s Republic of China. China expelled the apostolic nuncio to China in 1951, but Church contacts with the mainland China government continued until the late 1950s.

On various occasions in recent years, the Holy See has made known to China that it has no difficulty to recognize the one China and is willing to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan once China is ready for diplomatic links.

What the Vatican finds unacceptable is China´s insistence that the Holy See break its Taiwan ties as a pre-condition to negotiations on diplomatic relations, something China has not required of any other state. The Holy See is unlikely to break relations with Taiwan before China expresses its readiness to establish diplomatic relations with it.

While China insists that the Holy See break diplomatic relations with Taiwan and demands that it not interfere in China´s internal affairs, the Holy See, as a religious entity, wants China to commit itself to guaranteeing an acceptable level of religious freedom for all believers, and particularly that the Catholic Church can carry out its mission in peace without state interference.

One senior Vatican official recently told UCA News: "We want freedom for all religions, not just religious freedom for the Catholic Church. But then we Catholics want some specific content in that religious freedom, particularly relating to the appointment of bishops."

Evidence increasingly suggests that both sides may be reaching a pragmatic solution on the appointment of bishops. Therefore, it would not be surprising if they also move beyond the rhetoric and find a pragmatic way to resolve the Taiwan issue.

Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican´s secretary for relations with states (foreign minister), implied as much recently when Vatican Radio interviewed him after he visited some countries in Southeast Asia.

"It is obvious that the Holy See recognizes the Chinese state, though it does not have diplomatic relations with it," he said. "How could one not recognize a state like China, with 1.3 billion inhabitants and its great tradition of culture, art, poetry, thought and so on?"

Acknowledging that "establishing diplomatic relations with China is an issue under examination for a long time," he added: "From my point of view, there are no insurmountable difficulties. But it is necessary to proceed with prudence to verify some assumptions that neither side can give up."

He concluded by expressing confidence that, "with good will and a spirit of friendship, which both sides seek, a good outcome can be attained."


Gerard O´Connell covers the Vatican as a correspondent for UCA News and other news organizations.


(Accompanying photos available at here)

Support UCA News...

As 2020 unfolds, we are asking readers like you to help us keep Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) free so it can be accessed from anywhere in the world at no cost.

That has been our policy for years and was made possible by donations from European Catholic funding agencies. However, like the Church in Europe, these agencies are in decline and the immediate and urgent claims on their funds for humanitarian emergencies in Africa and parts of Asia mean there is much less to distribute than there was even a decade ago.

Forty years ago, when UCA News was founded, Asia was a very different place - many poor and underdeveloped countries with large populations to feed, political instability and economies too often poised on the edge of collapse. Today, Asia is the economic engine room of the world and funding agencies quite rightly look to UCA News to do more to fund itself.

UCA News has a unique product developed from a view of the world and the Church through informed Catholic eyes. Our journalistic standards are as high as any in the quality press; our focus is particularly on a fast-growing part of the world - Asia - where, in some countries the Church is growing faster than pastoral resources can respond to - South Korea, Vietnam and India to name just three.

And UCA News has the advantage of having in its ranks local reporters that cover 22 countries and experienced native English-speaking editors to render stories that are informative, informed and perceptive.

We report from the ground where other news services simply can't or won't go. We report the stories of local people and their experiences in a way that Western news outlets simply don't have the resources to reach. And we report on the emerging life of new Churches in old lands where being a Catholic can at times be very dangerous.

With dwindling support from funding partners in Europe and the USA, we need to call on the support of those who benefit from our work.

Click here to find out the ways you can support UCA News. You can make a difference for as little as US$5...
UCAN Donate
Thank you. You are now signed up to our Daily Full Bulletin newsletter
Contribute and get the Mission in Asia PDF Book/e-Book Free!
Contribute and get the Mission in Asia PDF Book/e-Book Free!
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia