Beijing-Vatican agreement good news for 6 million Chinese Catholics
The provisional deal signed between China and the Vatican last week on the long-debated appointment of bishops marks a historic breakthrough in bilateral ties that were severed in 1951. Although few details about the agreement were released, it is in any way a significant step taken by China and the Vatican toward each other after longtime negotiations and should have happened earlier.
While many see the deal as a chance for over 6 million Catholics in the populous country to be in communion with the universal church, it has also drawn criticism about the concessions the Vatican may make in the process from Western media and the clergy outside the Chinese mainland who have stuck to a hostile attitude toward China’s freedom of religious belief. They attempt to incite underground Catholics in China and others to challenge the authority of the Holy See and the Pope out of political concerns.
It is under such pressure that Pope Francis commented Wednesday on the provisional deal in a lengthy letter for the first time to console those holding suspicions.
He called China “a land of great opportunities” and showed determination in pushing forward negotiations between China and the Vatican in hope of helping “to heal the wounds of the past, restore full communion among all Chinese Catholics, and lead to a phase of greater fraternal cooperation.” Pope Francis aspires to make historic breakthroughs in the Vatican’s relations with China as part of his grand vision for evangelization in Asia during his papacy.
In fact, by signing the provisional deal the two sides have overcome a major cognitive barrier. The Vatican eliminated its previous misunderstanding about the Chinese social and political system and the Chinese Catholic community and deems changes of Catholicism in China with its new ideas adopted after the Second Vatican Council, 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church (1962–65). The Vatican has demonstrated a great deal of sincerity. On the other hand, China has also modified its attitude toward the Vatican. China will stick to its religious principle of independence and self-management, but at the same time it respects international practice. That’s why the negotiations have continued.
Those who question and criticize the deal may either have little knowledge about the history of Catholicism and China-Vatican ties or refuse to know about them. At this stage, China and the Vatican have to handle more specific issues, not fewer. But since the two sides have removed the cognitive barrier, these issues tend to be more technical and won’t be too difficult to address, such as underground churches in China.
In fact, the Holy See has become sophisticated in handling its relations with state authorities since the Second Vatican Council and adopted flexible ways that accord with the prac- tices of different countries. And these methods also evolve.
In essence, it is the holy orders, not parish management, that the Holy See truly emphasizes. China has always shown respect for the holy orders of the Holy See and the Pope, but it believes that leaving the management of church to China’s Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church would be better and can show the Vatican’s respect for the Chinese Catholic community. This is a clear picture if one wants to understand it.
China has a social system that differs significantly from other countries, but this doesn’t mean the nation won’t respect freedom of religion. Remarkable progress has been made in this respect in past decades, especially since China introduced reform and opening-up. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be nearly 200 million believers of a multitude of religions in the country, including more than 6 million Catholics.
When China explains its efforts in safeguarding free- dom of religious belief, it remains the target of bombardment, especially from Western countries and media. This is primarily because they have a stereotyped idea of the Chinese system and limited as well as asymmetric information about this issue. They also have a presumed premise that China should manage the issue of religion as Western countries do, even if these nations vary from each other in their own way of managing.
It is through the lens of this kind that they keep accusing China of its management of Tibet and Xinjiang affairs. Yet it would be ridiculous if one judges others without standing in their position. As the proverb goes, you can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.