Bei­jing-Vat­i­can agree­ment good news for 6 mil­lion Chi­nese Catholics

Global Times - Weekend - - FORUM - By Kong Chenyan The author is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor with Zhe­jiang In­sti­tute of So­cial­ism. opin­ion@ glob­al­times.com.cn

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.

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