ROME – In Catholic circles high and low, a widely reported potential deal between the Vatican and China over the appointment of bishops is stirring varied reactions. While some hail the accord as a critically important way for the Church to deepen ties with a global superpower, others see it as capitulation in the face of a hostile atheist regime.
When my Crux colleague Chris White and I recently spoke in the University Series in Whittier, California – ironically enough, the onetime home of U.S. President Richard Nixon, whose historic opening to China was perhaps his signature foreign policy accomplishment – one gentleman in the audience became especially incensed, repeatedly insisting that, “You don’t make a deal with the Devil!”
Whether he knew it or not, he was echoing Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who’s described the proposed agreement precisely as a “deal with the Devil,” saying, “This will be a shame in Catholic history that can never be washed away.” Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen has spoken in similarly harsh terms, insisting that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”
To hear some leading Chinese Catholics tell it during a major Rome conference this week, however, the Chinese government is hardly the Devil, and the Church is gradually winning a place of respect in an evolving Chinese society.
The discussion unfolded during a two-day conference titled “Christianity in the Chinese Society: Impact, Interaction and Inculturation,” staged at Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University. In some ways, the mere fact of the gathering was more important than any particular points made along the way, since not so long ago obtaining permission for senior Christian leaders to participate might have seemed implausible.
Instead, the lineup at the Gregorian seemed to suggest that a gradual thaw in Rome/Beijing relations is gathering force under Pope Francis, and few seemed anxious to slow things down.
At one stage, for instance, Bishop John Baptist Yang Xiaoting, who serves as the coadjutor bishop of Yan’an, and who was ordained in 2010 with both government and Vatican approval, seemed almost dismissive of fellow priests who request political asylum in foreign countries on the basis of claims of religious persecution.
“When I came to study in Italy in 1993, people asked me, do you belong to the underground church or the open church? Are you a real priest, or not a real priest? If you’re real, how can you come out of China? They thought if you were a real priest, you couldn’t leave China because of the registration system,” said Xiaoting, who studied at Rome’s Urbaniana University, which serves seminarians from mission countries around the world.
“I would tell them, ‘I belong to the Church from St. Peter,’” Xiaoting said.
“When I was in the States, I encountered many cases in which priests wanted to stay, to get a green card, and so they would seek the status of political asylum,” the 54-year-old prelate said. “If I had wanted to stay, I could have sought political asylum and claimed persecution.”
“But I love my country and I love my Church, and I want to serve my Church and my country,” Xiaoting said, adding: “What we hear outside China, and the situation inside, are often two very different things.”
At another point, Xiaoting largely brushed off a question about whether the government attempts to control education in Church-run seminaries.
“We have not felt that there has been coercion by the government to impose a curriculum upon us,” Xiaoting said. “We felt we need to know more about the policies of the government, so we can defend our rights and create more space for the Church to develop, to sustain itself and also to expand in our society.”
Speaking during a panel session Friday morning, Xiaoting added that Beijing “is promoting a very precise plan to help the poor, which poses no contradiction at all with our teaching and also our practice,” and that Chinese President Xi Jinping “promotes the concept of a common human destiny, which is similar to our concepts, emphasizing the common good and the welfare of all.”
Far from an implacable enemy of the faith, in other words, the Chinese government as presented by Xiaoting seemed an essentially neutral, even benevolent, arbiter of social life vis-à-vis the country’s various religious bodies.
His line echoed that of Cardinal John Tong Hon, the former bishop of Hong Kong, who in an interview with Crux’s Claire Giangravé on Thursday said, “If you have a really far-sighted vision of China, I think that you will find that China is more open, civilized and close to the outside world.”
The bulk of Xiaoting’s presentation was devoted to arguing that the Catholic Church in China is winning hearts and minds through an expanding array of social services, which represent an important form of “adaptation,” he suggested, using a government-approved word for religions that accept the need to be good Chinese citizens.
“Catholic service in modern Chinese socieity is one of the ways for the Church to develop along the Chinese direction,” he said. “The Church can maintain the basis of the doctrine of the faith, and also integrate into China’s fine traditional culture.”
Xiaoting ticked off 2013 data showing that the Church in China now runs a network of nine orphanages, seven homes for mentally handicapped children, 52 homes for the elderly, 136 clinics, eight hospitals, 43 kindergartens, two cultural schools, one vocational school, and 173 primary schools.
Moreover, he said, 11 dioceses offer programs for HIV/AIDS care, and 21 do the same for leprosy patients. The Church sponsors 40 water projects across the country, he said, involving more than 50 wells, and contributes roughly $12 million annually to scholarships for needy students and another $5 million in aid to various disadvantaged groups.
“These good deeds have witnessed the faith and glorified God,” Xiaoting said, “and are prized by the society.”
“The Church has a practical agenda, encouraging its faithful to practice in the light of their own faith, their historical traditions and their high social credibility,” the prelate said.
Xiaoting even extolled a new law in China governing the operation of religious charities, adopted in 2016, which has been described by critics as a means of extending government control.
“It’s an effort to actively support and earnestly implement the basic policy of national religious work,” he said.
To be sure, not everyone at the Gregorian summit was quite so sanguine about the intentions of the government.
Swedish academic Fredrick Fällman of the University of Gothenburg, for instance, warned that the government’s insistence on “adaptation” is not reciprocal process, because the state has no real intention of “adapting” to foreign understandings of concepts such as religious freedom.
“The government perspective is not that it works both ways, that’s perfectly clear,” he said. “It’s not a two-sided adaptation, and you can buy the books [laying that out] in any bookstore in Beijing.”
Government calls for religions to “sinicize” their faiths, meaning to integrate religious doctrines into Chinese culture, Fällman said, which translates in practice into recognizing religious freedom, but often not freedom of religious practice.
Fällman also expressed skepticism that growing numbers of Christians in China will result in significant social changes.
“Elites do have an impact, but as long as there’s Community Party rule, it’s hard to imagine a great impact even if [Christianity] grows much bigger,” he said.
Chinese scholar Shi Jian of Sichuan University in Chengdu ticked off several reasons the government still exercises vigilance over religious bodies.
- Fear that religious groups are controlled by “foreign forces.”
- Concern that the emergence of a “dominant religion” would destroy the country’s “religious ecology.”
- Anxiety over a “large number of cults operating in the form of religious belief.”
“Christianity has been in China for over 1000 years, but it’s not well integrated into the Chinese context,” Jian said. “The government and the public are worried that it’s being manipulated by foreign powers to threaten China’s national security … This voice is still quite strong there, in the government.”
Still, Xiaoting seemed optimistic in his long-term assessment of the Church’s prospects.
“The Church, in adapting to modern society and living in contemporary times, can be a carrier of human, spiritual and cultural values,” he said. “When the Church serves the modern Chinese society, her presence will become an evident product of a pluralistic and more international society.”