Saint Francis Xavier was a Spanish aristocrat who joined the church and was one of the six co-founders along within Ignatius Loyola of the Society of Jesuit in 1534, whose members would become the Jesuits, the storied intellectual and at times controversial order of the Roman Catholic Church. He became the order’s first and greatest missionary, spending many years in Asia before eventually dying in China.
Since then, Christianity’s fortunes in the world’s most populated nation have fluctuated but its fortunes are on the climb with some estimates putting the religion’s numbers at more than 100 million. Put simply, many Chinese are turning to God when they realise that the hole in their lives where the Party’s ideology used to be has been replaced by consumerism.
The Catholic Church, has a very difficult and unresolved relationship with the ruling Communist Party and is effectively split in two: the “official” Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, loyal to the Party and an underground church which remains loyal to Rome.
This week, when Jose Mario Borgoglia became the first Jesuit to be named pontiff he adopted the name Francis, he certainly in much as a homage to his order’s founder as to St Francis of Assisi – whose focus on poverty he shares.
And while he is expected to primarily concentrate on poverty, pastoral reform and long-overdue reform of the Roman Curia there are some signs that the new Pope may be keen to mend fences with Beijing.
After all the Party and Church have much in common, they are oligarchies whose leaders are selected by a chosen handful. Their immense wealth is controlled by that same handful and their cronies. They answer to no independent body, except in the Church’s case God. They demand complete fealty from their subjects. They have strict rules which many of their officials completely ignore. And they are riven by factionalism that keeps threatening to rip them apart. In the Church’s case that happened once but it was some time back.
But it’s the two organisations similarities that lie at the heart of China’s fear of the Church. The Party has long gone to lengths to make sure there is no other loyal membership network in China, apart form the influence that such an organisation could wield, a vast people-based network could be co-opted by others for the dissemination of anti-government ideals or revolution, at worst case. The Church also has diplomatic ties with Taiwan – an absolute no-no if you want to be friends with Beijing. The Vatican has said they would sever ties with Taiwan if Beijing provides assurances that Chinese Catholics can worship freely without Communist Party interference.
And perhaps most dramatically the Church sits “above” the nation, God is the very top of the tree, higher than any mere human or Party official. It’s God first, China/the Party second.
One the other side, the Party will not agree to the Vatican’s rules over its place as the arbiter of Church matters. Most publicly has subordinated the Church’s role in appointing bishops, a role the Church has managed to keep separate from the state in most places. Mostly there is final agreement with the Vatican but from time to time, most recently in 2011, China makes appointments – and the last case a string of them – without the approval of Rome. This kind of thing, on the other hand, is nothing new for the Catholic church. In earlier centuries, Catholic monarchs such as Louis XIV for example, had regular run-ins with Rome over their insistence that they and not the pope should appoint their country’s bishops.
For decades the two sides have been talking about making peace. The Catholic Church with it hierarchical structure and strict rules far the lesser of two evils compared with the US influenced evangelicals who make up the largest numbers of China’s Christians.
In October last year Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples with in the Roman Curia who spent 10 years based in Hong Kong, proposed a high level Commission between the Holy See and the Chinese government to solve the problems.
The timing was also right to draw the attention of the new leadership and to reiterate, at the beginning of their term of office, what the true intention of the Vatican is, said Professor Ren Yanli, expert in Sino-Vatican relations at one of the Chinese government’s top think-tanks, had to say Italian newspaper La Stamp’s Vatican Insider section. Others believe the proposals timing just ahead of the Communist Party’s own conclave to select its new leader, Xi Jinping, meant it would fall in a hole between the old and new leadership.
Then in his Christmas message Pope Benedict made explicit reference to “the new leaders of the People’s Republic of China” the first time a message had been aimed directly at the Party.
But only a month later the Chinese government stripped Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of his bishopric, less than six months after he was ordained as auxiliary bishop of Shanghai in July with Pope Benedict XVI’s approval. At some point after the ceremony in July he had announced he would leave the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. It’s a choice many Chinese Catholics have made with 5.7 million the official number for the state-run Church but 12 million Chinese Catholics worshipping in underground churches.
Bishop Ma is said to remain under house arrest and the situation has cooled relations with the Vatican once more.
Yesterday all appeared not much had changed. The government sent congratulations to Pope Francis and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Thursday that Beijing hopes the new pope will work with Beijing to improve relations. But she repeated Beijing’s demand that the Vatican cut ties with Taiwan and not “interfere” in China’s internal affairs.
But longer term under Xi Professor Ren said:
It’s too early to tell. But there have been signs that they have started to study the files. They are gathering information. The appointed president Xi Jinping and the other future leaders are young people who grew up in China in recent decades. They are realists and have shown that they want to deal with problems in a resolute manner. With them, the dialogue already launched between Beijing and the Holy See will be able to start again. They do not bear the responsibility for what happened in the past. And they can walk quickly, because they carry light baggage on their shoulders
Only about 12 hours after Pope Francis was introduced on the balcony of St Peter’s, China’s state-run news agency announced that Xi Jinping has been “elected” as China’s President by the National People’s Congress. Already Communist Party chief and People’s Liberation Army supremo, he is a man promising action. It will be interesting to see whether mending fences with the Vatican is on his to-do list.