Tuesday, April 12, 2005

China and the Catholic Church

Pope John Paul II visited some 129 countries during his papacy, as we have been reminded continuously over the past couple weeks. But there is one important country he conspicuously never visited -- China. He had often expressed some hope that he could visit China, but it was not to be.

In the next few weeks, the cardinals will elect a new Pope. One of his first missions should be to normalize relations with China. Of the estimated one billion Catholics in the world, only about 12 million are Chinese, and they are divided between the official China Patriotic Catholics Association and an underground church loyal to Rome.

But while they are few, they are incredibly steadfast, having endured and survived the anti-Christian pogroms during the Cultural Revolution (1967-1974). Many members of the underground church are still persecuted. With 20 per cent of the world’s population, China is certainly the single greatest “market” for souls.

The schism in the Chinese Catholic community is, like so much of modern Chinese history, a result of the Civil War between the Communist and Kuomintang. Just as the nationalists fled China for Taiwan after 1949, the Papal nuncio left Beijing and took up permanent residence in Taipei.

Today the main bone of contention is the fact that the Vatican City still maintains an embassy in Taiwan, the only European state that continues to do so. However, The church’s ambivalence is shown by that fact that it never replaced the last Papal nuncio after he departed in 1980. The embassy is staffed at a low level.

From time to time it is reported that the Vatican is ready to cut ties with Taiwan. Indeed, The Bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, said as much, speaking after a Requiem Mass to mourn the late Pope. “The Holy See has been thinking of giving up Taiwan. [But] there is no way it would do so before negotiations.”

The bottom line for Beijing would be for the Holy See to sever all diplomatic ties to Taiwan. The bottom line for the Vatican would be to regain the prerogative of appointing Chinese bishops, something now done by the China Catholic Bishops Association with approval from the state Religious Affairs Bureau.

At present two churches exist in China side-by-side. One is the officially sanctioned China Patriotic Catholics Association with roughly 5 million members. It has its own priests, bishops, and seminaries. Then there is the “underground” church, loyal to Rome, which has its own priests, bishops, clandestine seminaries and possibly 8 million worshipers.

It is illegal for the underground church to celebrate Mass in public, and Beijing still arrests priests and bishops who do so and are caught. Three were arrested last year, including the 84-year-old Bishop of Xuanhua. Only days before the Pope’s death it was reported that two more elderly priests and one elderly bishop were apprehended.

Relations were seriously strained on Oct. 1, 2000. Beijing chose that day, its national day, to announce the elevation of five official bishops. That same day Pope John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese Catholic martyrs and missionaries, many of them killed in various anti-foreigner uprisings in the 19th century.

Pope John Paul II tried to make amends in 2001 by officially apologizing for past “errors” on the part of the church, especially those that might be seen as abetting imperialism. Beijing extended condolences over the Pope’s death and expressed a desire for better relations. But it did not send a delegation to the funeral, apparently because Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian attended.

During the week prior to John Paul II’s death Beijing hosted Cardinal Jodfried Dannelles, the archbishop of Malines-Brussels. He met with a vice premier, members of the China Patriotic Catholic Church, and its leader, Fu Tieshan, the Bishop of Beijing, which shows that the two sides do talk.

Indeed, there is probably more interchange between the two churches than appears on the surface. After all, if the two are ultimately to be amalgamated, some formula needs to be found to redistribute the dioceses. There are more than 100 official bishops in China and an estimated 60 unofficial underground bishops.

Only one Chinese Cardinal, Paul Shan, archbishop of Taipei, will be among those who gather in Rome to pick the new Pope, and being 83, he won’t be able to vote under the current rules. It was reported in 1998 that Pope John Paul II secretly elevated two other bishops to the rank of cardinal, who may or may not be part of the conclave.

Beijing was leery of Pope John Paul II due to his personal role in dismantling communism in Europe. China should welcome the opportunity for a fresh start. China wants to be seen and accepted in the world as a modern nation. It doesn’t do its image much good to go around arresting 80-year-old priests.

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