A Chinese challenge for Pope Francis

After years of strained relations, Beijing and the Vatican City have made tentative steps towards reconciliation, but Catholicism's growing presence in China remains a source of anxiety for the Communist Party.

Pope Francis has been allowed to fly over China’s airspace in a rare gesture of reconciliation from the Communist government in Beijing. The Argentine pontiff sent a radio message to the Chinese population and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping.

“Upon entering Chinese airspace, I extend best wishes to your Excellency and your fellow citizens and I invoke the divine blessing of peace and well-being upon the nation,” said the pope in a radio message.

One the face of it, it was nothing more than a diplomatic nicety from the Holy See. It sent nine such messages on its flight from Rome to Seoul, which has a large and growing Catholic population. But it is a significant event considering that Beijing had previously denied the Pope access to its airspace.

Pope John Paul II, one of Francis’ predecessors, was not allowed to fly over China on his way to Asia. The Argentine Pope, the first Jesuit pontiff, wants to normalise the relationship with the world’s most populous country. But the Holy See has repeatedly clashed with Beijing over the appointment and detention of bishops and priests.

Pope Francis faces some formidable challenges in re-setting the relationship with Beijing. The first issue is really a thousand-year-old problem that has dogged the Holy See since the Middle Age. Popes and kings fought over the rights to nominate bishops and abbots for hundreds of years; this was known as the investiture controversy. 

The Catholic Church is again fighting that thousand-year-old battle in China and its new nemesis is the powerful Chinese Communist Party, which is intolerant of religious dissent and suspicious of foreign power. The party is particularly anxious of the church, which is arguably the largest non-party institution in China.

The church in China is divided into two communities: an ‘official’ church known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and an ‘underground’ church that maintains its allegiance to Rome. Like the investiture crisis in the Middle Ages, two churches fought over the ordination of bishops.

In the past decade, the Holy See and the Chinese Communist Party seem to have reached a tacit agreement on the issue of ordination of bishops. The tortured formula works like this: priests and nuns will elect a bishop and then the candidate will be jointly endorsed by Beijing and the Vatican.  

That understanding broke down in 2010, when the government-sponsored church ordained four bishops without the blessing of the Vatican. The Holy See swiftly excommunicated three of them, essentially a spiritual death sentence in the eyes of the faithful -- a drastic step that hadn’t been taken since 1951.

Another eruption in relations took place in 2012, when Beijing appointed a priest called Thaddeus Ma Daqin to be the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, the largest diocese in the country. He was considered to be a ‘yes man’ to Beijing.

However, during the ordination ceremony at Saint Ignatius Cathedral and in front of thousand of officials and faithful, Ma made his surprise announcement to leave the ‘official’ church.  Ma’s move enraged party officials and he was stripped of his new title and sent away for re-education, according to Reuters.

It will take time for Beijing and the Vatican to re-establish their tenuous trust. The Communist party is anxious and even fearful of a growing church. They are conscious about the role played by the Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II in the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe. Retired cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, a vocal advocate for freedom, is also a thorn in Beijing’s side. 

The second and less formidable obstacle for relations is Taiwan. The Vatican is the last European state that still recognises the Republic of China, or Taiwan. Of the remaining 22 countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan, many of them are staunchly Catholic countries.

The Vatican has previously flagged its intention to sever its diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Back in 2005, the-then Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, said the Vatican was prepared to switch its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing if the party could guarantee religious freedom.

As the influence of Catholicism declines in its heartland of Europe and North America, the Vatican is hungry to extend its pastoral reach. Over a billion Chinese live in a society that hungers for spirituality after the collapse of Communism as an ideology.

The election of the first Jesuit pope has offered a ray of hope for the Church. It was the Jesuit missionaries who introduced Catholicism in China as far back as 1534. Famous missionaries like Matteo Ricci and Ferdinand Verbiest are well-known in China.

Joint appointments of Chinese bishops since the dramatic resignation of Bishop Ma from the Patriotic Church are perhaps a sign of things to come.

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