How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The pope’s eyes are set on China. Since 1951, the Vatican has had no official ties with Beijing, which bans foreign influence on religion. But the relationship might be about to change. By all accounts, a Sino-Vatican diplomatic breakthrough appears within reach this year, despite increased aggression against Christian churches in some provinces.
The main question now is whether Chinese President Xi Jinping is willing to concede some power to the Holy See. The primary dispute between the Catholic Church and China turns on the pope’s role in approving local bishops. Xi publicly insists on a government-controlled “patriotic” church, and the Vatican maintains that the pope, as St. Peter’s successor, must be able to name bishops to preserve apostolic authority and global unity.
The Holy See’s solution to the dispute seems to be a version of its relationship with communist countries during the Cold War, when it achieved a modus vivendi with atheistic regimes regarding the appointment of bishops and limited religious freedom despite ongoing friction between church and state.
Xi, too, seems to have a solution in mind. His willingness in 2013 to extend a hand to the Russian Orthodox Church in Beijing, and to visit Patriarch Kirill in 2015 in Moscow, suggests that the Chinese leadership can bend the rules on external engagement, especially in the face of evidence that church attendance is not slowing and can’t be stopped. Despite the Chinese Communist Party’s doctrinal atheism, and Mao’s brutal efforts to wipe out faith during the Cultural Revolution, Christian worship has exploded on the mainland, surging from about four million believers in 1949 to over 70 million today, of whom a miniscule 20,000 are Orthodox and about 12 million are Catholic.
Xi undoubtedly wants to restore the influence of Confucian thought as part of a national program to inculcate traditional values, but more than three decades after the Chinese government ended the worst of its Cultural Revolution–era religious restrictions, it’s impossible to turn back the clock. The church’s position is stronger now than it has been for years, for three key reasons. First, the inexorable growth of Christianity puts pressure on Beijing to find ways to accommodate it, and decades of quiet effort have put the Catholic Church in a position to negotiate recognition. Second, the ostensibly state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association supports Francis and has started lobbying for a deal. And finally, the Vatican still has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, to Beijing’s irritation, which gives it a strong bargaining chip. In September, Francis will canonize Mother Theresa, who served as Pope John Paul II’s informal ambassador to China on three trips—the perfect occasion to announce a breakthrough.
FALSE SHEPHERDS AND ILLICIT BISHOPS
Between 1966 and 1976, Chinese authorities forbade religion, driving all worship underground. Yet Christianity survived and has since grown rapidly. In 1979, many churches and temples were reopened, and over the next few years ministers and priests were brought back from labor camps or internal exile to lead faith communities once again. With a new emphasis on economic growth and modernization, the Chinese government decided it was more effective to control religion than to crush it.
China’s 1982 Constitution protects “normal religious activity” so long as worshipers conform to one of five state-sanctioned organizations for Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestant Christianity, and Taoism that were created in the 1950s. Churches and temples in the official sphere must register and submit to state control; many faith communities opted to risk harassment, even jail, to preserve their independence.
Christian worship has exploded on the mainland, surging from about four million believers in 1949 to over 70 million today.
In the Catholic Church, relations were particularly antagonistic between official and underground churches in the first decades of communist rule. The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was created in 1957 as a state-sanctioned church, without approval from the Vatican. Pope Pius XII described bishops ordained by the Patriotic Association as “false shepherds,” who earned automatic excommunication. These bishops and priests were state employees, often despised by the faithful. Beijing’s insistence that the Catholic Church be locally controlled and independent of external influence directly contradicts central church tenets and governance: in a chain of succession traced back to Jesus Christ, the pope has authority to appoint bishops, who lead the church in locations around the world but report back to the Holy See.
Over time, the sharp divide between patriotic and underground Catholics has blurred, especially since Pope Benedict XVI wrote a pastoral letter in 2007 calling for forgiveness between state-approved and unregistered communities to “help all Catholics grow in unity.” Where the subject of Vatican recognition continues to roil quarters of the church is among priests and bishops themselves. Two years ago, when an official seminary in Beijing announced that an illicit bishop would celebrate the graduation Mass, the class boycotted their own graduation. At the same seminary in 2000, when the Patriotic Association ordained five bishops without papal consent, the student body refused to attend.
But principals in the state-sanctioned church appear ready to concede authority to the Vatican. Joseph Ma Yinglin, the illicit bishop who leads the Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference (unrecognized by the Vatican) and his two vice presidents (one illicit, the other approved by both Beijing and Rome) took a ten-day “pilgrimage” to the United States last September, invited by the Yale University Divinity School, with the further goal of establishing connections with the U.S. Catholic Church. It seemed like an odd mission for high-level Chinese bishops and officials, but their visit coincided neatly with that of Pope Francis. A Vatican source told me that the three men wrote an inscription to the pope in a Bible: “We love you, we pray for you, we wait for you in China.” A U.S. cardinal reportedly gave the bible to the pope himself.
CHURCH AND STATE
For the most part, what has emerged in reform-era China is a sort of compromise between the Chinese government and the church. If a priest learns he is being considered for appointment by the government, most seek approval from the Vatican, thus managing to be, in an ad hoc way, jointly approved.
But that informal arrangement ruptured in 2010, when the Chinese government under President Hu Jintao ordained a bishop without input from the Vatican and pressured eight Vatican-approved bishops to participate in his ordination. Tensions eased again in 2013 after Francis and Xi took office just a day apart. According to reports, Francis wrote a letter of congratulations to Xi, who replied in possibly the first direct communication between these heads of state since 1949. In revealing this exchange to Italy’s Corriere della Sera a year later, the pope said, “We are close to China.... The relationships are there. They are a great people whom I love.”
The Chinese government decided it was more effective to control religion than to crush it.
Since the two men came to power, Beijing has not ordained any bishops independently. Instead, the government allowed a Vatican-approved bishop to take up his responsibilities, after detaining him for ten years. Last summer, the first new bishop in three years was ordained with permission from both powers.
The pope has continued to push relations forward as well. He selected as his secretary of state Pietro Parolin, who served as Pope Benedict’s point person on China between 2005 and 2009, a period of relative calm. And in August 2014, the Chinese government permitted Francis to use Chinese airspace for his trip to South Korea, the first pope ever given this privilege. Returning to Rome from the United States last September, he alluded to progress with China, saying, “We’re in contact, we talk, we are moving forward.”
In fact, the Vatican and Chinese officials have held three rounds of secret talks: in June 2014, October 2015, and January 2016. Representatives of the Chinese government were in Rome in January to continue the dialogue, and a Vatican delegation has visited Beijing.
But despite these positive signs, many Chinese Christians worry that Xi’s true intention is to promote Sinicization. He reiterated in a speech last May that China must maintain a “united front” by resisting foreign influence, especially in religion.
Based on data maintained by China Aid, the push for Sinicization has coincided with increased persecution of Christians. The group called 2014 the most repressive year for Christians since the Cultural Revolution, with over 100 churches demolished, mostly Protestant house churches, but increasingly churches associated with the state-sanctioned protestant church, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. The number of people sentenced for religious and human rights violations increased from 12 cases in 2013 to 1,274 in 2014.
CHRISTIANITY WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS
Xi might fear that allowing Christianity to flourish, and letting go of control over bishop selection, would change the nature of Chinese society. Yet the history of Christianity in China should demonstrate that Christian worship is already compatible with Chinese culture. The survival of the faith over hundreds of years without outside priests, ministers, or missionaries is evidence of its acculturation. The first president of the Republic of China in 1912, Sun Yat-sen, was a Christian, as were many of the elite during that period.
Meanwhile, the idea that traditional Chinese values are fully consistent with Christian theology goes back as far as Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit who arrived in Macau in 1582, learned classical Chinese fluently, and, in 1601, became the first Westerner invited to enter the Forbidden City to advise the Imperial Court. Ricci, who wore traditional Chinese garb and a long beard, encouraged Biblical interpretation through a distinctly Eastern lens, incorporating into Catholic liturgy an unusual term for God, the Lord of Heaven, drawn from both Confucian and Christian thought. When he died in 1610, the Emperor approved his burial in Beijing. His well-maintained tomb lies behind a communist administrative college.
In an interview with Asia News last month, Pope Francis discussed Ricci. “For me, as a boy, whenever I read anything about China, it had the capacity to inspire my admiration,” he said. “Later I looked into Matteo Ricci’s life and I saw how this man felt the same thing in the exact way I did, admiration, and how he was able to enter into dialogue with this great culture, with this age-old wisdom. He was able to ‘encounter’ it.” The pope’s message seemed designed to convey his esteem for the country, its history, and its leadership.
According to La Stampa, the Asia News interview was much circulated in China, by official and unofficial organs, and favorably noted in popular media accounts. It didn’t touch on controversial aspects of the Vatican-Chinese diplomatic relationship, although the pontiff alluded to the country’s recent loosening of its one-child restrictions as a positive change. A spokesman from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded, “China has always been sincere about improving Sino-Vatican ties.”
There are, of course, many issues that divide China and the church: the Vatican recognizes the Republic of China (Taiwan) as the government of China and seats Taiwan’s president as China’s representative at diplomatic ceremonies. But for now, according to Vatican sources, both sides will focus squarely on a process for selecting bishops that allows each to point to their respective role and call it determinative. Options include allowing the Vatican to give a list of acceptable candidates to Beijing, which then makes a final selection (the model that exists in Vietnam); letting the Vatican make a selection that must then be confirmed through official Chinese channels; or letting China take the lead, but allowing candidates enough time to try to win Vatican approval, a process used for several ordinations over the last ten years. These three options were already being discussed at the U.S. embassy in 2007, according to a cable made public by Wikileaks.
Although some criticize the policy known as the Vatican’s Ostpolitik as a compromise with the devil, it worked.
In considering such options, the church is recalling the ways it dealt with hostile regimes during the Cold War. One notable example is the Vatican’s relationship with the communist regime in Hungary, which tortured the Hungarian church’s most respected religious leader, Prince Primate and Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty. A 1957 decree made it mandatory for the pope to get “prior approval” for bishop appointments, a protocol formalized in the 1960s. Bishops had to swear allegiance to the secular government. Not only did the Holy See comply with measures that undercut its independence and authority, it allowed the Communist Party to dictate how it treated its most heroic Hungarian representative, Mindszenty. Having escaped prison during the 1956 revolution, the prelate wound up taking refuge in the U.S. embassy, where he lived for 15 years until he was brought to Rome by Pope Paul VI, against his wishes, and eventually stripped of his church offices.
In Romania, the current archbishop of Bucharest, Ioan Robu, 71, provides another example of how the Vatican dealt with communist governments. Days before dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had a scheduled meeting with Pope Paul VI in Rome, three seminarians, including Robu, were hastily given passports and allowed to begin studies in Rome. The communists wanted to demonstrate that they were making an opening toward the Holy See. Eleven years later, selected by Pope John Paul II and approved by his government, Robu filled a seat vacant for 30 years. Not only did the Romanian government and the Vatican both approve him, it was as though they had cooperated to cultivate this bishop—a move that gave leadership to a community under great duress during Ceausescu’s oppressive rule. Similar tactics were used in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Castro’s Cuba.
Although some criticize the policy known as the Vatican’s Ostpolitik as a compromise with the devil, it worked: Catholic communities across eastern Europe thrive. According to Pew, Catholics make up 61 percent of Hungary’s population, 75 percent of Slovakia’s, 89 percent of Croatia’s, and 92 percent of Poland’s. And communism is gone.
As Christianity continues to grow rapidly in China, there’s no evidence that it will be a threat to social order—unless the government tries to control it unrealistically. And when the Vatican does come to an agreement with Beijing, China’s fractured Catholic communities will become more united—to the advantage of both the Vatican and the Chinese state. Earlier this year, Francis said, “I would very much like to go to China. I love the Chinese people. I love them very much.” Like his Jesuit forbearers, he seems likely to make this wish come true.