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Wide variety of responses to letter on Sino-Vatican negotiations

HONG KONG (SE): A lengthy reflection published under the name of the bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, on the ongoing negotiations between the Chinese government and representatives of the Vatican, has sparked a wide variety of responses, particularly from inside China.

Published in English in the Sunday Examiner and Chinese in the Kung Kao Po on August 7, the letter has elicited comments describing it as over-optimistic, balanced and inspiring, and plain unrealistic.

While another article from the former bishop of the city, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, posted on the AsiaNews website a couple of days later, expressed a more pessimistic view about any positive outcome emerging from the Sino-Vatican negotiations, the various responses to some degree or other echo the thoughts of both bishops.

However, both Cardinal Tong and Cardinal Zen seek to dispel the fear that the Vatican is prepared to sacrifice the interests of the unofficial Church community on the mainland.

Cardinal Tong vigorously defended the validity of both the official and unofficial Church communities, crediting Pope John Paul II with ensuring that the split between the two factions would remain more political than religious by recognising bishops from both sides as legitimate.

He also suggested that if the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China could shake off its government shackles and absorb the bishops from the unofficial communities, then China would have a viable mechanism for recommending candidates to be bishops.

However, one priest who identified himself as Father Vincent from northeast China, said that he believes asking the bishops from the unofficial communities to join a bishops’ conference would be meaningless, as it is doubtful they would be given a voice.

He also pointed out that the current conference does not have any influence on Church life anyway and joining ranks with it would only reflect a compromise with the political system, as the conference has forgotten human rights, never tells the truth and never speaks of social justice, remaining content with mouthing a bit of meaningless love talk.

“Chinese society has become perhaps the most hypocritical and has lost its integrity. The last thing we want to see is the Vatican quietly swallowing this rotten fruit in the name of an agreement between China and the Holy See,” he reflected.

Father John, from central China, echoed this sentiment, but added that he sees a great value in a visible communion between the Church in China and the universal Church.

But he added that he believes the biggest stumbling block is whether the bishops that may be appointed after some agreement has been made would be faithful to the fundamental principles of the Church, or insist that politics must be their priority, something that is difficult to avoid in a society in which everything is politicised.

“The imperial Chinese culture is deeply rooted in politics and the Catholic Church is highly politicised. Even if China signed an agreement, I fear the problems would remain,” he said.

But most of all, Cardinal Tong stoutly defended the integrity of Pope Francis, saying that the fear that he would sell the Church down the drain by signing an agreement that would sacrifice important principles are totally unfounded.

While the degree of optimism expressed by priests in China varied, Cardinal Tong’s insistence on working out of a paradigm of love received appreciation, as many said they believe that blind opposition can only lead to violence.

One priest pointed out that the particular difficulty that the Vatican negotiators are facing is the extremely secularised nature of the Church in China, since it is controlled by the government in almost every aspect of its life.

“This is not just a cultural difference, which can be overcome through dialogue and mutual communication. It is more than that,” the priest, who asked not to be named, said. “The Vatican is dealing with a government that is hostile and constantly oppresses the Church.”

He also called for special consideration of the unofficial Church communities, saying that they are in an extremely insecure position, aggravated by the fear they are being abandoned by the Holy See.

But Father Joseph, from Shanghai, introduced a different perspective into the discussion, saying that China severed its relations with the Vatican in 1951, as the last thing it wanted was for its citizens to be loyal to a foreign leader, but with Pope Francis being recognised as a world class super leader, this fear is even more magnified today.

He pointed out that Beijing would be more favourable to the Anglican tradition, which makes a much stronger demand for loyalty to the state and since the Vatican and Beijing have radically different ideas about what they want for the Church, it is hard to find common ground.

“From China’s point of view, whether it is an appointment of a religious leader or a national company president, the power of appointment should be in the hands of the government,” Father Joseph points out, noting, “China does not want this principle destroyed by the Vatican.”

He said that there are historical reasons why China fears the Church, as it remembers the role it played in the decline of Communism in Eastern Europe about 20 years ago and this is a psychological obstacle to relating with the Vatican.

Father Joseph also points to scars left by the behaviour of the caged bishop in Shanghai, Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, which has challenged the current system of appointing bishops,

In addition, he notes that the unofficial communities have been severely critical of the government and Vatican communication with them has not been smooth, as their bishops do not always measure up to expectations.

He pointed out that one difficulty that both the Vatican and Beijing share is they both have a problem dealing with the unofficial communities and this may be an area where the two can find common ground.

The most controversial aspect of Cardinal Tong’s letter is that many have read it as an attack on his predecessor, Cardinal Zen. But the former bishop of Hong Kong told the Apple Daily on August 9 that he does not believe that this was his intention.

He added that criticising the pope is not part of what he is on about and he believes that Cardinal Tong was addressing his comments to voices in China.

However, Cardinal Zen admitted that he is pessimistic about the outcome of the two-way dialogue, saying that to be credible, he believes Beijing must make some concrete gesture, like releasing all the priests and bishops who are being held in prison.

But whatever the feeling for or against the dialogue, no one has had the temerity to put a time line on it and, although Cardinal Tong hints strongly that some agreement has already been reached, Father Joseph says that for something that has been mooted since 1999, he will believe it when he sees it.

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