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Reactions to pope’s New Year overture reflect its complexity

HONG KONG (SE): There was a quick response from China to an overture from Pope Francis when he sent greetings for the Lunar New Year to the president, Xi Jinping, and the people of China in an interview published in the Hong Kong-based Internet news outlet, Asia Times, on February 2.

Pope Francis said, “On the eve of the New Year, I wish to convey my best wishes and greetings to President Xi Jinping and to all the Chinese people. And I wish to express my hope that they never lose their historical awareness of being a great people, with a great history of wisdom, and that they have much to offer to the world.”

In an informal reply, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, Lu Kang, was quoted on February 4 by the Global Times, a state-run English-language publication, as saying, “China is sincere about improving relations with the Vatican and has made consistent efforts… We also hope the Vatican takes a flexible and pragmatic attitude and creates conditions to improve relations.”

Although the crunch words in Lu’s statement, flexible and pragmatic, are left undescribed, little is left to the imagination, and although the overall tone of his statement is positive, it leaves things pretty much where they were in the first place.

However, Liu Guopeng, from the Institute of World Religion Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted as commenting, “It is unlikely that the two countries would return to an indifferent attitude toward each other, as the Cold War mentality has been abandoned. China has realised the necessity to integrate and actively interact with the international community.”

However, by referring to the Vatican as a country, rather than to Catholicism as a religion, Liu has made it abundantly clear that Beijing regards relations with the Holy See as sovereign state to sovereign state, rather than sovereign state to a religious body.

However, he does pay homage to the influence the Vatican has in world affairs, calling it a significant player.

“The two significant powers both share the responsibility in promoting world peace and stability, which also provides a platform for dialogue and cooperation,” the Global Times quotes Liu as saying.

Liu was upbeat in his comments, saying that the leaders of both the Vatican and China share similarly strong political charisma and both promote bold and resolute reforms. He added that he believes this may lead to surprising and promising results.

While undoubtedly the Beijing response is politically crafted, others were mixed and some critical or skeptical. AsiaNews reported that some Church people in China said that the Chinese government is too cute to get caught up in such an overture, while others hint that they believe that the pope is being compromising and treading on dangerous ground.

Although others give the pope cookie points for good intentions, they say that they do not think he will get anywhere. “I do not think that will work. It is very difficult to change the way the Chinese government controls the Church, even with the pope’s sweet words,” a priest from Xi’an, in Shaanxi, was quoted as saying.

“All the soothing words and flattery will not create any difference in government. Pope Francis praised the wisdom of Chinese culture and history, but in reality, this society is without morals. Today’s generation has lost its cultural roots thanks to heavy policies of recent years. For this, these kind words will not help the situation today,” he said.

On the other side of the coin, the bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, said that he thinks the recent interview with Pope Francis praising China—and avoiding criticism—is in keeping with the spirit framing relations of the Church with the modern world as expressed in the mid-1960s by the Vatican II document, The pastoral constitution of the Church in the modern world (Gaudium et Spes).

“This encourages dialogue with other religions, as well as with non-Christians in a sincere and friendly manner,” Cardinal Tong commented.

On the other hand, John Mok Chit-wai, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told AsiaNews that the pope seems to confuse Chinese culture with the Communist Party of China, which is not the reality.

He quotes what he describes as a respected historian, Yu Ying-shih, as saying that the Communist Party has trampled on Chinese civilisation and now there is no Chinese civilisation on the soil of the mainland.

“The reality is that the Communist Party is simply upholding a version of political Confucianism to spread a state ideology of patriotism, loyalty and unquestioning obedience to the state, using it as a party propaganda tool,” Mok says.

He also wonders about Pope Francis’ comparison with Father Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary who pioneered relations with the emperor during the Ming Dynasty.

Mok notes that Xi is no emperor and nor is today’s China anything like the Ming era, as Xi has his own method of suppression of liberties in civil society.

Mok is also critical of the Church in Hong Kong, saying that it appears to be afraid to upset Beijing and is staying mute on abuses of civic and religious rights in the mainland.

But Cardinal Tong is not alone in reacting positively to the overture from Pope Francis. A press release from the Verbiest Institute in Leuven, Belgium, describes the interview as Pope Francis-like, expressing his own strong belief in friendly and frank dialogue.

“The interview makes it clear that the pope favours closer relations—encounter—with China,” it says. It then highlights the pope’s words, “Encounter is achieved through dialogue. We must find the way, always through dialogue, there is no other way.”

One person in Shanghai spoke of feeling united with the pope. “He was wise to show this great extension of friendship. Any direct criticism of the Chinese government can only cause harm to the Church. His kind attitude reveals that he is a true pastor,” he commented.

Another person said that he was encouraged that several newspapers and even state radio in China gave the interview some coverage. However, he added the rider, “What the pope expresses is not what the authorities want,” and most media said that he must accept the three principles of total independence of theology, jurisdiction and administration for the Church in China.

The person said that he is also of the opinion that Beijing and the Vatican are talking at cross purposes, as the pope wants a religious dialogue and Beijing wants a political one.


The ambassador from Taiwan to the Holy See may have been spot on when he said on January 28 that relations between Beijing and the Vatican seem to be stalled.

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