China’s uneasiness with the Vatican

A confusing sequence of courtship and confron-tation that has been taking place between China and Vatican, in recent weeks, underscores Beijing’s uneasiness in dealing with the Roman Catholic Church.

China’s Communist Party’s oscillation between its patriotic duty and its fear of losing political control casts doubt over the possibility of establishing dialogue between the seat of one of the world’s largest religions and the most populous country.

Chinese rulers covet the recognition of the Holy See — the only administration in Europe that still recognises the government of Taiwan rather than that of the People’s Republic of China. Removing Taiwan’s remaining foothold in Europe would be a worthy victory for Beijing, which speaks of the unification with the independently ruled island as the completion of a sacred patriotic mission.

But acquiring Vatican’s blessing comes with a price, which Beijing is not prepared to pay yet. As Chinese leaders fret over political instability and a decay of traditional values, the Communist Party fears that Holy See’s authority could undermine its own disputed mandate to power, with the religious faith proving a dangerous alternative credo to communism. The party remembers the role played by the Roman Catholic Church and the late Pope John Paul II in bringing the downfall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

There are estimated to be 12 million Catholics in China, divided between two Catholic hierarchies — the government-authorised Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and an underground church loyal to the Holy See. The state-approved church respects the Pope as a spiritual leader but doesn’t recognise his authority over national boundaries.

The election of Pope Benedict XVI a year ago had raised hopes that the Holy See and Beijing would establish official ties severed since Mao Zedong expelled the papal mission in 1951. The Vatican has shown willingness to sever its diplomatic ties with Taiwan, saying the “time is ripe” for Beijing and the Holy See to establish diplomatic relations.

In recent weeks, China’s state-approved church ordained two bishops without papal assent, drawing a threat of excommunication from the Vatican. It unilaterally consecrated a bishop in Wuhu, in the eastern province of Anhui, and another in Kunming, in southwestern Yunnan province. The ordinations drew a strongly worded reaction from the Vatican, which called them “an unacceptable act of coercion.” Last Sunday, China also formally installed a third bishop who lacked papal blessing as the head of the Mindong diocese in southeastern Fujian province. Zhan Silu, 45, was among a group of five bishops appointed by Beijing in 2000 in a rebellious act to counter the Vatican decision to canonise 120 Chinese Catholics as martyrs on October 1, the anniversary of the Chinese communist revolution.

The state-run church has dismissed all the criticisms surrounding the ordinations. But experts say they have violated a tacit agreement reached between the two sides after 2000, under which both the Vatican and the state-backed Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association would approve candidates for bishop. Beijing’s moves reflect its desire to keep tight control over organised religion in China and curtail the infiltration of foreign influence in domestic organisations. — IPS