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China and the Conclave

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Apr 19, 2005

China wants the Vatican to take advantage of its opportunity to elect a Pope who will change Catholic policy toward the Communist regime. In particular, the Chinese government wants the Vatican to withdraw diplomatic recognition from Taiwan and to recognize the legitimacy of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. For these ends, the Communist Chinese hope to influence the conclave to elect the right sort of pope.

The Political Question of Taiwan

Vatican diplomatic recognition of Taiwan is primarily a political question, though there are religious implications. Chinese Communism is both theoretically and practically hostile to the Catholic Faith. The Taiwanese have rejected Communist rule and created a society in which the Church has an opportunity to flourish. It goes without saying that Vatican leaders prefer to recognize the legitimacy of Taiwan, which the Communists regard as a breakaway province in rebellion against the lawful government.

Nonetheless, it is perfectly possible for the Vatican to withdraw diplomatic recognition from Taiwan in order to thaw relations with mainland China, in the hope of opening greater opportunities for evangelization among the much larger population which the Communists control. Vatican diplomacy has several legitimate objectives, but it is primarily driven by the good of the Church. The withdrawal of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan is not without spiritual meaning, but it would not significantly damage the Church’s mission in that country. The question is whether it would significantly help the Church’s mission on the mainland.

Thinking Inside the Box

This is an open question because Chinese Communists have two quarrels with the Church. While the recognition of Taiwan clearly rankles with an emotional force that is not to be underestimated, the Communist antipathy to the Church originates in the much deeper issue of whether it is possible to transcend politics. Communists do not believe in a point of reference beyond the State. For them, all aspirations and institutions must serve the State’s goal of building utopia now. Utopianism is inevitably totalitarian, and Communist Chinese political theory is no exception.

For this reason, the Chinese government has established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association as the only legitimate expression of Catholicism in that country. The Association does not recognize papal primacy, for the direction of religious life must not be allowed to come from outside the State. Such an approach is not uncommon with those who make a God of politics. The French, for example, tried the same thing during their revolution in 1789. It is the nature of religion to provide an independent reference point for the judgment of all things human, but if a regime can keep its churches confined to, and dependent upon, its own political culture, it can reduce independent religious thought to the vanishing point.

Catholicism is Different

Alone among all the religions of the world, Catholicism has a worldwide hierarchical structure with a leadership owing allegiance to no other power but Christ. This structure looks very strange to those who do not see the corresponding spiritual reality. Among the Communist Chinese, for whom all reality is political, misunderstanding and suspicion cannot fail to arise. People bred in such a culture find it nearly impossible to imagine a hierarchy without a political purpose, or a supra-national structure which will not necessarily undermine the State. The Church must certainly attempt to allay such fears by demonstrating that her structure is dedicated to benign purposes which can only enhance the Chinese way of life. Again, withdrawal of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan may effectively demonstrate to the Chinese that the Church’s vision is not essentially political.

But even if all misunderstanding can be cleared away, the Communist Chinese regime cannot permit recognition of a supreme spiritual and moral authority in Rome. The regime’s fundamentally false view of human nature means that it cannot both remain itself and allow the independent direction of the moral will of the Chinese people. For its part, the Church is similarly incapable of changing to accommodate the Communist vision without ceasing to be the Church.

Under John Paul II, the Vatican was most sympathetic to those among the Chinese faithful, including bishops, who have played to some degree a double game by formally participating in the Patriotic Association while maintaining secret allegiance to Rome. This policy was not without a high cost among those, often in prison, who had more nobly refused to cooperate with the Patriotic Association in any way. It is difficult to see how Rome can go any further down this path without sacrificing elements essential to the Church’s life. This being so, the Church may not be able to satisfy Communist China even by withdrawing diplomatic recognition from Taiwan.

Outside the Box

The Church’s hierarchical structure and independent leadership strengthen the Catholic understanding that here we have no lasting city, not even in Beijing. This structure makes it intrinsically harder for Catholics than for other Christians (or other religions altogether) to lose their independent perspective and accommodate themselves completely to the political culture within which they live. Unfortunately, Communists—like secularists far closer to home—insist on putting Catholics in a cultural box and keeping them there.

With some of us this is depressingly easy to do, but it cannot be done with the Church as a whole. Taken as a body, Catholics are exceedingly difficult to contain. Crank the handle long enough, and they start popping back out, often at the most surprising times. This perennial reappearance of Catholics outside the confines of political culture is one of the clearest signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is the same Spirit Who is reportedly so active at conclaves—including this conclave that the Communist Chinese would like to control.

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