The China Syndrome

Published June 14, 2006

The recent decision by China’s government-sponsored Patriotic Catholic Association [PCA] to ordain and install bishops whose nominations had not been approved by the Pope has, according to press reports, put the possibility of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Beijing into the deep freeze. Why, though, did anyone think a real thaw was underway in the first place?

Perhaps this misperception was due in part to some wishful thinking (and subsequent leaking) on the part of senior Vatican officials, who regard full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China as, primo, a good thing in itself and, secondo, the key to seizing the opportunities for evangelization that will be available when China opens itself fully to the world. Both propositions are questionable. Under current circumstances, establishing full diplomatic relations with the PRC means transferring the Holy See embassy to Beijing from Taiwan — which just happens to be home to the first Chinese democracy in five millennia. What would such a move do to the Catholic Church’s hard-earned (and well-deserved ) reputation as the premier moral force behind the contemporary human rights revolution? And what would such a potential dent in the Church’s image (whether fair or unfair) do to the Church’s prospects in a future Chinese free market of religions, into which evangelical Protestants, Mormons, and others who won’t bear the burden of entanglement with the communist regime will eventually flood?

Is Pope Benedict XVI taking a harder line on China than his predecessor? That’s another media misperception, and it’s rooted, I expect, in historical myopia. In 1870, Holland, Belgium, Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and certain missionary territories were the only places in the world where the Church could appoint bishops without interference from (or, as the euphemism had it, the “cooperation” of) the state. For the past 125 years, recovering the libertas ecclesiae, the Church’s freedom to order its internal life without state interference, has been a prime concern of Vatican diplomacy. Different accommodations have had to be made at different times, but the Church has never conceded to the state a right-of-appointment of bishops that is independent of the papacy. Perhaps an accommodation of a sort could be offered to the present regime in Beijing — but its acceptance seems unlikely, given the regime’s manifest determination to keep what it regards as the genie of religious freedom firmly corked in a state-sealed bottle. That determination, not any “hardening” on the part of Benedict XVI, is the heart of the matter today, as it was during the pontificate of John Paul II. And until that changes, nothing dramatic is possible.

Some light was cast on the complexity of all this during a recent conversation I had with one of China’s most prominent Catholic laymen (who, for reasons of prudence, must remain anonymous). He confirmed that there had been a significant grassroots rapprochement between members of the PCA and members of the underground Church, as he confirmed that many PCA bishops had made submissions to Rome and now prayed publicly for, and in communion with, the Pope. This reconciliation, which was part of John Paul II’s China strategy, is detested by the Chinese regime; the recent episcopal ordinations and installations, which took place under duress, were in part an effort to reinsert wedges between PCA Catholics and underground Catholics.

My interlocutor made two other important points. First, in his view (which he believes Pope Benedict shares), no deal with the Beijing regime is better than a bad deal — and a bad deal, in these circumstances, means a deal in which the government’s role in the appointment of bishops is unacceptably intrusive. Second, and despite the regime’s ritual rants about Christianity-and-colonialism, Catholicism is immensely attractive in China because the Chinese people associate Christianity with modernization, with a more decent society, and with a better way of life.

All of which prompts the thought that a Vatican that “thinks in centuries” can well afford to bide its time in dealing with a regime that is only fifty-seven years old — a regime that, on my friend’s analysis, may unravel in the next decade or two.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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