It’s been in the news for a few days already, but the charges and countercharges continue to fly. Anyone familiar with Catholicism in China knows that the Vatican and the Chinese Communist government have been more or less at loggerheads ever since Mao Zedong drove Catholicism underground. At the heart of the dispute is the Vatican’s insistence on its right to appoint bishops; the Chinese government sees this as “foreign interference” in domestic affairs. The government’s Patriotic Association (PA) is the bureau in charge of Catholicism in China. Complicating the matter is the fact that many (nearly all?) the bishops appointed by the PA have subsequently and clandestinely sought ex post facto approval from the Vatican, thereby normalizing their status as leaders of the local churches.
Of late, there had appeared some indications that relations were thawing. The Vatican expressed its willingness to establish full diplomatic relations with China—it’s one of a few countries that officially recognizes only Taiwan—if only the government would decisively concede the point about episcopal appointments. But earlier this week the PA ordained two bishops without the pope’s approval—indeed, in the face of warnings from Rome. That blew another chill wind across Vatican-China relations.
We at Acton have generally taken an optimistic stance on China, hoping that economic and political engagement would eventually bring about prosperity, openness, and political and religious freedom. Chinese authorities seem determined to call into question that optimism.
Yet glimmers of hope remain. AsiaNews has an extraordinarily thorough and informative roster of stories on the latest dispute here. Reading them provides a sense of the complexity of the Chinese religious situation. One senses that there may be a conflict between the PA and the broader Chinese government over this issue of Catholic bishops. That is, the PA, fearful of the loss of power, is trying to reassert its traditional prerogatives. But the rest of the government is more interested in fostering international goodwill by improving relations with the Vatican—especially ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. One hopes that the PA loses that fight, and that religious freedom, which is a vital correlate of political and economic freedom, takes a big step forward in China.