ROME – As the Vatican walks a fine diplomatic line in its ongoing engagement with China, it has recently sponsored conferences in Taiwan and Hong Kong to further interfaith dialogue with both Confucianism and Taoism.

From March 7-8, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue partnered with the Department of Religious Studies at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taipei to hold a conference titled, “Christians Fostering Dialogue with Confucians: Guidelines and Prospects.”

A statement from the dicastery said the conference, held at Fu Jen University, is part of an ongoing initiative “aimed at formulating official guidelines for Catholics engaging in dialogue with followers of Confucianism,” an ancient Chinese belief system that emphasizes personal ethics and morality.

Numerous experts in Confucianism from around the world have taken part in past online meetings to exchange insights and expertise, they said, saying the conference marked “a significant step forward.”

It also provided an opportunity “to share project insights with a broader audience interested in promoting Confucian-Christian dialogue,” they said, saying the guidelines will go through a final revision process and are intended to be a resource for individuals, organizations, and communities within Catholicism and beyond that wish to engage with followers of Confucianism.

Speaking to Vatican News, the Vatican’s official state-run information platform, prior to the conference, Father Paulin Batairwa Kubuya, undersecretary of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue, said they were hoping to finalize a draft of the guidelines while in Taipei, with experts coming from countries around the world, including Australia, China, Italy, and the United States.

Kubuya pointed to what he said were some of the main points of contact between Christianity and Confucianism, saying they are both “wisdom traditions” that have existed for thousands of years.

“Confucian ethics is very, very strong about helping people learn to connect themselves, how to be good citizens, how to organize their lives. This aspect we also find corresponds in Christianity,” he said.

Similarly, the idea of heaven and living as a united humanity along the lines of the Pope Francis’s repeated calls to human fraternity are also common to both, he said, because brotherhood goes “beyond borders.”

In terms of the current state of dialogue with Confucianism, Kubuya said the bishops in Asia have organized several meetings to discuss the issue and to grow in their understanding of Confucianism, but the dicastery itself is still working out the guidelines.

“Once the guidelines are done, then we can have more official sessions of dialogue with them,” he said, insisting on the importance of this dialogue.

Kubuya noted that Christians coming from countries heavily influenced by Confucianism, such as China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia, among others, can face difficulties in reconciling their beliefs with their culture.

As an example, he referred the veneration of ancestors, recalling the 17th century the Rite Controversey, in which Catholic missionaries in China debated about whether ancestor veneration, which Chinese converts sought to continue, was compatible with the Catholic faith.

“It was understood as if they were worshipping them, and this created trouble,” Kubuya said, saying, “I think that the way we initiate this dialogue can help Christians and Catholics who are coming from this background to be able to appreciate better the cultural aspects that come from that background, and see how they can live it and bring it and live together with the Catholic faith.”

He voiced hope that the conference would draw interest and would continue to help foster a better understanding on either side.

In addition to its interreligious significance, the Taipei conference is also noteworthy due to the geopolitics that serve as the backdrop against which it took place, being one of the rare nods the Vatican has given to Taiwan, despite being its only remaining European diplomatic ally.

The Holy See is one of just 11 sovereign nations that hold diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which is struggling to keep hold of these partnerships, having already lost some, including the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru, this year.

Pope Francis himself has been engaged in a strong courtship of China since his election, having struck a secret controversial provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops in 2018 that is still in place, and offering consistent and well-placed shout-outs and acknowledgements to the Chinese people.

Among other things, Francis made a visit to Mongolia last summer in which he praised the “noble Chinese people,” and shortly after gave a red hat to Stephen Chow, the bishop of Hong Kong. Two Chinese bishops participated in part of the first session of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality last October, and last year Chow and Bishop Li Shan of Beijing also made respective visits to each other’s dioceses.

This year the Vatican has appointed several bishops according to the terms of the provisional agreement, and it has also established a new diocese, marking an apparent acceleration in relations, as there have been more appointments this year alone than any previous year since the 2018 deal was struck.

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Against this backdrop, it is significant that the Vatican, which during the COVID-19 pandemic publicly thanked China for sending medical supplies but refrained from voicing gratitude to Taiwan for sending the same aide, publicly sponsored an event in Taiwan, especially when relations with China appear to be bettering.

From March 11-13, the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue was sponsoring another conference in Hong Kong to continue Christian-Taoist Dialogue in partnership with both the Diocese of Hong Kong and the Taoist Association of Hong Kong.

Taoism is both a religion and a philosophy from ancient China in which humans and animals must live in balance with the Tao, or the universe.

This week’s conference on Taoism is titled “Cultivating a Harmonious Society through Interfaith Dialogue,” and has drawn scholars from China, France, Italy, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, among other countries.

Participants are expected to reflect on the scriptural basis for societal harmony in both Christianity and Taoism, fostering harmony through worship and the liturgy, Tao and virtue in dialogue and practice, holiness in Taoism and Christianity, and transmitting religious faith in a globalized world.

According to the dicastery, the Hong Kong conference is intended to “provide a platform for both Christians and Taoists to deepen their understanding of each other, to understand how disharmony generates pain and suffering, and to work together to heal today’s fragmented world.”

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