The question of whether Pope Francis will finally achieve the dream of many of his predecessors to visit China moved to the forefront of international chatter recently when he declined to meet with the Dalai Lama on the occasion of that worthy’s visit to Rome last year.
Many in the media immediately assumed at the time that the Pope’s refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama was political, that he was fearful of upsetting China’s rulers who might then take it out on negotiations between Beijing and the Vatican on normalizing relations between the two bodies.
That notion has since been laid to rest by Francis himself during an in-flight press conference held aboard his plane as it left the Philippines on Jan. 19. There, Francis explained that the reason the meeting didn’t happen was due to protocol that prevented a get-together while the Dalai Lama was in town to attend another gathering.
The Pope then assured reporters that a future meeting date had been set but did not say when.
But the kerfuffle raised by the media over the apparent “snub,” has served to remind everyone about the delicate politics involved with the Church’s negotiations with the Chinese that is likely based on a fear by the country’s Communist rulers of a loosening grip on power more than a Marxist rejection of religion as an “opiate of the masses.”
A way needs to be found that would allow the Chinese rulers to back away from their decades-long stand against religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular.
But politics and negotiations have never been strangers to the Catholic Church in China whose historical association with the country began with Franciscan priest John Montecorvino who arrived in 1294 during the Yuan dynasty. Five years later, he built the first church and some years after that, Catholicism became a thriving concern. In the 1600s, Jesuit missionaries arrived and, impressed with their technical and accounting expertise, emperors of the Qing dynasty named many of them to important civic positions.
In later years however, arriving Dominicans criticized the Jesuits’ approach to proselytization and complained that the Order had gone native. That internal strife tried the patience of Chinese rulers who eventually outlawed Catholicism and tried to stamp it out. A low point was reached during the Boxer Rebellion, a nativist reaction to foreign imperialism, in which Catholics were targeted for murder.
The 1900s saw a return to normalcy with the number of Catholics in China growing into the millions before the communist movement triumphed in 1949 and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
All religions were then considered threats to the new order and placed under control of the State Administration for Religious Affairs which moved quickly to bring the Catholic Church to heel with the creation in 1957 of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association with its state-approved bishops.
That action marked the official split between the government of China and the Vatican which continued to support an underground Catholic Church that refused to acknowledge control by the state. While not moving to overtly stamp out the underground Church, the government has done its best since diplomatic relations were severed in 1958 to make life for its faithful as difficult as possible by closing churches, not allowing new churches to be built, discriminating against believers, and jailing for long periods priests and bishops who continued to be loyal to the Pope.
Even today, Catholics continue to be imprisoned for refusing to submit with Roman Catholic bishop Cosma Shi Enxiang only the latest reminder. The 94-year-old cleric had spent the greater part of 60 years imprisoned and the last 14 in house arrest, all because of his loyalty to the underground Catholic Church. Reports have surfaced of his death recently but there has been no official word from the Chinese government.
Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Ma Daqin has been in detention since his ordination in 2012 when he resigned the Patriotic Association to join the underground Church.
Eager to relieve its followers from such oppression, the Church has been involved in diplomatic efforts to end the impasse between itself and the PRC for decades but a difference of opinion in how even to approach the table has prevented real progress.
Those sticking points have been described as the “two China” problem and the question of independence: China demands that the Church end its diplomatic relations with Taiwan before anything else can be discussed while the Church wants China to first agree to the primacy of the Pope as leader of the universal Church including the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Such is where matters have rested for decades until there was a recent indication by the Church that it would be willing to move its embassy from Taiwan to the mainland. But even with that concession, the PRC has balked, refusing to recognize the Pope’s sole authority in the consecration of bishops.
Benedict XVI tried to walk a line between church and state when he reasserted the Church’s claims to primacy while also acknowledging the right to govern by the PRC.
But there may also be another problem: freedom of religion in particular and human rights in general which some believe must be guaranteed if any settlement with the PRC is to work. Without freedom of the press for instance, how can the Church publish its various newsletters and public communications? Without the sanctity of private property, how can it be certain its buildings are safe from seizure?
Which brings things to the present except to say that in the last ten years or so, China’s climb to a world economic power has added complications to the mix that could bode good or ill in its relations with the Catholic Church.
On one hand, the country’s newfound power has made its leaders more arrogant as their navy expands the government’s claims in the South and East China Seas even as it grows closer to the enemies of the West. Meanwhile, China has moved aggressively in Africa and Central America in its efforts to secure natural resources as well as investing heavily in enterprises around the world.
However, on the home front, prosperity has raised the expectations of an increasingly restive population tired of the state’s one child rule, unresponsive government administrators, official corruption, and lack of freedom. As a result, the government finds itself putting out brush fires of angry citizens from towns remote from the country’s prosperity to villages in the way of development to disenfranchised voters in Hong Kong.
At the same time, some reports indicate that the Communist Party itself is currently in turmoil with some kind of internal power struggle going on. And so long as that struggle continues, Vatican diplomats can’t be sure which side might be friendly to their interests putting negotiations on hold.
Events, it seems, are pulling China in different directions and the question is which will win out. Will it be more freedom or more control? Will the Party choose to put a lid on demands for more openness in order to maintain its overseas military aspirations or ease off on domestic issues where pressure is building due to rising expectations?
Amid all this, Christianity is growing quickly in China with some estimates claiming over 100 million with about 10 million of those members belonging both to the underground and Patriotic Catholic Churches.
For that reason alone, China cannot be ignored by the Vatican and in a recent interview Pope Francis insisted that his door is always open to envoys of the PRC.
The Pope’s implicit optimism may have been spurred by a January statement from Hua Chunying, a mouthpiece for the Chinese foreign ministry who said that his government was “willing to have constructive dialogue with the Vatican based on relevant principles” adding that “China is always sincere in improving ties with the Vatican, and has been making efforts to this end.”
So it might be in the interests of China, if it wants to appease a significant portion of its dissatisfied population, to walk through that door and come to a modus vivendi with the Vatican. If that happened, then Francis might indeed get his wish to be the first Pope to visit China.