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Catholic church’s deal with China must not compromise fundamental principles

By Eric Yan-ho Lai

On 4 February, John Cardinal Tong, the Catholic diocesan bishop of Hong Kong, published an article titled “The future of the Sino-Vatican dialogue from an Ecclesiological point of view,” about the normalisation of Sino-Vatican relations.

His good intentions must be respected, but some of the suggestions he made need more consideration.

john tong

Cardinal John Tong. File photo: Hkdavc, via Youtube.

The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association

One major issue in Sino-Vatican negotiations is the controversial role of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) in the Church of China. From His Eminence’s point of view, a possible way forward is for China to recognise the Pope’s right to appoint bishops and end the policy allowing the official church the right of “self-nomination and self-ordination.”

Once these steps are realised, the abolition of the CCPA would not be necessary. Rather, the institution can continue to function if it solely provides charitable services.

However, His Eminence may have overlooked the undesirable consequences such an optimistic proposition might incur.

Firstly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is de facto asserting control over the assets and administration of the official Catholic Church by interfering with officials’ appointments in the CCPA. The faithful have long been dissatisfied with this uncanonical infrastructure.

The continued existence of the CCPA would not bring reconciliation between the official and the underground Church. Rather, internal splits would continue amid scepticism and distrust of the CCPA.

After all, there is no sign that the CCP would give up its substantial control of the Church via the CCPA, even if the Pope’s formal right to appoint bishops is resumed.

Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association

Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. File photo: Apple Daily.

Secondly, the CCPA per se is a product of the CCP’s religious policy of an “independent, autonomous and self-run Church,” which serves to control the operation and development of the Church in China. Recognising the existence of the CCPA would be translated as the Vatican’s partial endorsement of this policy.

Moreover, the strong patriotic character of the CCPA is incompatible with the Church’s spirit of universality. Theologically speaking, the Church is, according to the document Lumen Gentium (Light of the Gentiles, 1964), the “universal sacrament of salvation.” It serves the whole of humanity.

Facing the rise of unhealthy nationalism, and social exclusion against ethnic and religious minorities in the world today, the Catholic Church should not endorse associations with a nationalistic or patriotic character.

Third, endorsing the CCPA’s existence would give an excuse to the CCP and its satellite groups to advocate the expansion of CCPAs to Hong Kong and Macau. This is likely because the CCP has been practising a political strategy of penetration, or what the opposition parties in Hong Kong call “mainlandisation,” over decades.

The establishment has blamed the unceasing resistance of Hongkongers on the incomplete “turnover of peoples’ hearts” to China. Therefore, formal and informal patriotic education was promoted, and various pro-Beijing groups were formed to counteract the democratic movement, in which Christians in Hong Kong actively engaged. The autonomy of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong would be at risk if the CCPA is legitimised and expanded.

cathedral of hong kong

The Cathedral of Hong Kong. Photo: Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong.

The mission of the Catholic Church

His Eminence also declared that the Church has no political aspiration but the desire of “living and witnessing her belief” in China. Evangelisation is undoubtedly the fundamental mission of the Catholic Church. In medieval times, the mission of the Church was merely eschatological: to evangelise and baptise the Gentiles in order that they might enter Heaven.

However, this concept has been enriched and made holistic since the Second Vatican Council of 1964. In the synodic document Iustitia Mundo (Justice in the World, 1971),  the mission of evangelisation is stated as follows:

“[The mission of preaching the Gospel message] contains a call to people to turn away from sin to the love of the Father, universal kinship and a consequent demand for justice in the world. This is the reason why the Church has the right, indeed the duty, to proclaim justice on the social, national and international level, and to denounce instances of injustice, when the fundamental rights of people and their very salvation demand it.” (para. 36-37)

The declaration above clearly demands that the Catholic Church engage in social and political affairs outside the establishment as her duty of evangelisation. This duty reflects the Church’s pastoral aspiration. The Catholic Church in Poland and Brazil during the Cold War, and that in South Korea, the Philippines, El Salvador today, totally meet this expectation by participation in civil society and nonviolent resistance.

Saint Pope John Paul II

Saint Pope John Paul II. File photo: Beyond Forgetting via Flickr.

If so, facing severe political and economic injustice in China, should the Catholic Church pursue its rights of “living and witnessing her belief in China” at the expense of fulfilling the mission against injustice in the territory?

Should the Catholic Church remain silent in the midst of government suppression over the Christian Family Church, and the manipulation of other religious institutions by party penetration?

In other words, the absence of prophetic participation in society significantly undermines a full evangelisation of the Catholic Church today.

Essential or handicapped freedom?

At the end of his article, Cardinal Tong proposed a “lesser-of-two-evils” strategy that strives for the freedom of the Holy See to appoint bishops, despite the fact that the Church is still much constrained in its freedom to carry out various activities, such as spreading the faith, founding schools and recovering properties.

On the surface, his strategic choice can be understood with sympathy. However, the evil is always in the details. In previous sources leaked in newspapers, an agreement on the mechanism of appointing bishops between China and the Vatican was proposed.

While the Pope could have final approval of episcopal candidates, the Chinese government would filter candidates at the initial stage. If so, it would inevitably contradict with the instruction of a Vatican II decree:

“[T]he right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and per se exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority. Therefore, for the purpose of duly protecting the freedom of the Church and of promoting more conveniently and efficiently the welfare of the faithful, this holy council desires that in future no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be granted to civil authorities.” (Christus Dominus, para. 20)

Vatican City St Peters Square

The Holy See. Photo: Diliff via Wikicommons.

In other words, if the proposal above is true, the CCP could hold some power over bishop selection, and thus the freedom for the Holy See to appoint bishops would be conditional. If this “essential” freedom is conditional, can this freedom still be true and guaranteed? Can it still be said that Catholic traditions will be recovered?

The process of recovering a diplomatic relationship between China and the Vatican will be long. But any diplomatic resolution should not be achieved at the expense of the  autonomy of the Catholic Church, under the conventional principle of “separation of Church and State.” The conditional right of appointing bishops by the Pope and the formal recognition of the CCPA’s existence are incompatible with the principles and values of the Catholic Church.

It is sincerely hoped that the leaders of the Catholic Church will review their understanding and approach to the political reality of China, and seek solutions that safeguard the essence of the Church.

Eric Yan-ho Lai is a lay Catholic, university researcher and lecturer in Hong Kong. His research interests include civil society, social movements and democratisation.

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Catholic church's deal with China must not compromise fundamental principles