A Blessing for China

By Liu, Melinda; Hesse, Katharina et al. | Newsweek International, June 11, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Blessing for China


Liu, Melinda, Hesse, Katharina, Kaiser, Robert Blair, Newsweek International


China and the Roman Catholic Church: seldom if ever has history produced a more irreconcilable clash of culture and politics. Roman Catholics have been part of China's political life since the early 1600s, when Jesuit Matteo Ricci entranced Emperor Wan Li with gifts of prisms, maps and clocks. But after the 1949 communist victory, Mao Zedong cut his country's ties to Rome. An official, "patriotic" Catholic Church was started, which rejected papal authority. The Vatican's anti-communist envoy was expelled from Beijing and fled to Taiwan.

After 1958 official Catholics began ordaining their own bishops without Vatican approval. Vatican loyalists countered by holding underground services of their own, starting a bitter rivalry between the two factions. One of the prickliest issues is whether Beijing or the pope has ultimate authority to ordain bishops, control finances, allow abortions and decide other key church matters. Relations between China and the Vatican hit a low point last year when the Holy See canonized dozens of Chinese saints on Oct. 1, National Day in China, without consulting Beijing. The Chinese government was enraged.

The Vatican has its own long list of grievances. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), extremist Red Guards persecuted and tortured Catholics of all stripes. But since then only clandestine Roman Catholics, devoted to the pope, have suffered. Over the years, thousands have been harassed, detained and imprisoned by Chinese authorities. In the past year dozens of underground churches have been demolished. Just last month, around Easter, six underground clerics were arrested, mostly in Hebei province. One of them, the Most Rev. Shi Enxiang, 79, has already spent nearly 30 years behind bars for his loyalty to Rome.

In short, Beijing and the Vatican got along very badly for the last half of the 20th century. But now, once again, the tumultuous relationship has begun to turn. As if by historical momentum, "official" and "unofficial" Catholic churches throughout much of China have begun informally to merge in recent years. So while the seats of church and state are still feuding, nearly all of China's 70 official bishops actually have been approved by both Beijing and the Holy See. "This is a new and dramatic development," says Ren Yanli, a prominent Beijing scholar on Catholicism. If the two sides agree on bishops, even informally, they can hope for further normalization in the future--even re-establishing diplomatic relations, which both sides say they genuinely want. John Kamm, a San Francisco-based human-rights activist, says that in most Chinese regions nowadays, official Catholics and clandestine Catholics "follow a 'live and let live' policy." In some congregations, they even worship together. For the estimated 5 million underground Catholics in China--more than half the country's total number--that is effectively a victory in the fight for religious freedom.

A half century of animosity between Beijing and the Vatican will not quickly dissipate. But the Chinese government has practical reasons for moving toward reconciliation. Improved relations with the Vatican would promote the idea that China is committed to human rights. That might take some of the sting out of China's hostile relations with Tibet's Dalai Lama and drive a wedge between Catholics and followers of the banned, quasi-mystical Falun Gong sect. Not incidentally, it would improve China's chances to win the right to host the 2008 Olympic Games in this summer's vote. "A perception of more religious freedom would vastly improve Beijing's image in the West, especially the United States," says Kamm.

The political calculations don't stop there. The Vatican is one of just 28 governments to recognize Taiwan--and a rapprochement between Rome and Beijing would cost Taipei its embassy in the Holy See.

The Vatican has its own motivations. After normalization, Chinese Catholic leaders would be able to abandon their internecine squabbles and devote more energy to ministering to the flock. …

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