[The following is an op-ed and, as such, does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors.]
Last year Thaddeus Ma Daqin declared his resignation from the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Assocation (CCPA). Ma’s announcement was honoured with applause in Shanghai’s cathedral of St. Ignatius. But the decision taken by the Vatican-ordained bishop, a blow to the credibility of state control, was taken as a calculated violation by the powers that be in Beijing. Ma soon found himself under house arrest.
The election earlier this year of the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, as the first non-European Pope in close to 1,300 years, was a move full of resonance. Standing at the head of a global flock of 1.2 billion, Pope Francis needs to reach out to the estimated 12 million Roman Catholics that reside in China. For decades, China’s Catholics have been split between underground “house church” membership, loyal to Rome and defiant of the government, and the state-founded CCPA.
As a Jesuit, Francis is surely aware of the extraordinary influences his 16th and 17th century predecessors left on the Chinese literati and imperial court. For the sake of his church, Francis must now rebuild the Vatican’s ties to China in the 21st century.
Many overlook the unique foreign policy potential that the Catholic Church wields. Writing in the Guardian, Nick Spencer dismissed the new Pope: “Francis has no more than words and example to work with.” But the decisions taken by Conclave should not be underestimated. They have surprised us in the past. Absolutely nobody expected the appointment of a Polish Pope in 1978. Pope John Paul II went on to play a critical role in the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
As the Vatican comes under ever increasing global scrutiny, Pope Francis needs to show that the Holy See remains a force to be reckoned with. But China remains elusive for the Vatican.
The problems stretch back over half a century. China severed its diplomatic ties to the Vatican in 1951, after the atheist Communist Party came to power and expelled papal representatives to China. As the CCPA was born, so were the secret “house churches” which sheltered Catholics across China, still loyal to Rome and under threat of state persecution.
In the past decade, the most significant form of tension between Vatican legitimacy and Beijing’s insistent control has been over the appointment of bishops. With the Vatican frequently threatening excommunications and Beijing in turn accusing the Holy See of violating religious freedom, there is little sign of relief.
The Chinese reaction has been shortsighted at best, warning the Vatican to cease its relations with Taiwan, which China claims as its territory, striking out at Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s presence at Francis’ inauguration, and calling on the Pope to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, including in the name of religion.”
Such hawkish posturing within the Party continues to assert power in narrow terms, but the moral capital of the Party is in short supply in the People’s Republic, especially for those left behind by their country’s economic zeal. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, is particularly sensitive to the discontents of economic modernization. China’s extraordinary religious revivalism has poured into the vacuum left by the ruptures of Communist ideology, and in the last decade has increasingly infused the educated and wealthy. As CCPA bureaucracy and the underground church pull spiritual allegiances further apart, the mainland has created a singularly unhealthy atmosphere for Catholics — forced to operate in the shadows or under the control of an atheist bureaucracy.
The Holy See needs a diplomatic breakthrough to make its moral authority and international influence worthy of the new age. Writing in the Huffington Post, David Gosset has proposed possible diplomatic smoke signals — the canonization of the 16th century Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, so emblematic of the Jesuit China Mission, for instance — that could pave the way to China’s opening up to the Vatican.
For their part, Beijing’s leaders need to awaken to the unstoppable religious dynamics that are shaping Chinese society, and look for an alleviation of the internal tensions that are pushing Chinese Christianity into an increasingly fraught arena.