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Second guessing Sino-Vatican outcomes

HONG KONG (SE): Reactions to the letter from John Cardinal Tong Hon, which was published on August 7 on negotiations currently being conducted between the Vatican and Chinese government representatives, have been generally hopeful, but at the same time counter-balanced with contradictory implication and limiting innuendo.

Although a representative of the Vatican described the meetings as not being clandestine, as there is no secrecy about them taking place, they are secret in the sense that their content is shrouded in silence, leaving observers to second guess what those who may be in a position to know more may or may not mean by their comments.

In the letter from Cardinal Tong, published under the title of The communion of the Church in China with the universal Church by the Sunday Examiner and in Chinese by the Kung Kao Po, the bishop of Hong Kong strongly hints that after many decades of waiting and negotiating, Sino-Vatican dialogue is at last making some progress on critical issues.

However, on the day after the letter was released on the Internet, a report from Lu Kang, from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said, “We are willing, on the basis of the relevant principles, to continue having constructive dialogue with the Vatican side, to meet each other halfway and jointly promote the continued forward development of the process of improving bilateral ties.”

However, he tempered his remarks by adding the rather vague comment, “We hope the Vatican can likewise take a flexible and pragmatic attitude and create beneficial conditions for improving bilateral relations.”

While many still talk of the possibility of diplomatic relations, Cardinal Tong is clear that the current discussions centre on normalising Church life, especially in the delicate area of the appointment of bishops, which encroaches upon the equally delicate area of the function of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, already declared as incompatible with Church life by Pope Benedict XVI.

On top of this is the function of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, which is not recognised by the Vatican either, although it seems to be more at the heart of discussions than the Patriotic Association.

A lengthy article published on August 18 by China’s Global Times, a tabloid more akin to the style of kite flier to gauge public reaction than an official mouthpiece, quotes Agostino Giovagnoli, from the Catholic University of Milan, as saying if Cardinal Tong chooses to speak at this particular time, it is because he thinks that there has been some significant development.

Giovagnoli caricatures Cardinal Tong as serious, reserved and cautious, concluding, “So he thinks the time has come to make the decision and, very softly but very firmly, says that the decision must be positive, because this agreement is not a victory for one side or the other, but a win-win deal.”

He adds that Cardinal Tong knows that between China and the Vatican there is a long and difficult history and opportunities have been wasted.

Giovagnoli then describes the greatest obstacle as being lack of confidence and mutual misunderstanding, adding that he believes Cardinal Tong is trying to encourage the two sides to trust each other.

While fear has been expressed among Catholics both in and outside China that some basic principles of the Catholic Church may be sacrificed, Cardinal Tong is at pains to dispel this.

Elisa Giunipero, also from the Catholic University of Milan, agrees. She told the Global Times that she does not believe this will happen and nor will the unofficial communities be forgotten, but on the contrary, their situation may improve.

However, the Global Times says that the government seems to remain suspicious, even in the face of the Church’s willingness to come to some agreement.

It quotes the People’s Daily, an authoritative mouthpiece of Beijing, as publishing three articles on July 10 stressing the importance of Sinicisation (theology with Chinese characteristics) and reminding religious groups to resist control from “foreign versions of the same religion.”

The article notes that this is a first for the phrase, “foreign versions of the same religion,” and that it is in all probability aimed at the Vatican.

Later in the same month, on July 31, Sun Chunlan, the head of the United Front Work Department, the most important Communist Party body for dealing with religious issues, reinforced this by stressing that there is no subordinate relationship between religions in China and those outside of the country.

Sun further complicated the issue by quoting the president of China, Xi Jinping, as saying at the National Conference for Religious Work in July that management of religion should not be too tight, but at the same time not too loose, another challenge to second guess where the invisible dividing line may lie.

On the day the letter from Cardinal Tong was published, the head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Wang Zuoan, urged people to be alert to hostile foreign forces and stressed that the Church must remain under the control of the government Patriotic Association.

While the counter-balancing of opinion begs the question what’s in it for who, the hedging continues, with the Global Times noting that Cardinal Tong’s office says he has said all that he wishes to say.

But Yang Fenggang, from Purdue University in the United States of America, jumped the gun a bit when he told the Global Times that there may be more in it for China than the Church, as it could eventually see Taiwan lose diplomatic relations with its last European ally, while at the same time improving its international image.

However, on the other flip of the coin, Liu Peng, a former official from the United Work Front and currently the director of the Pu Shi Institute for Social Sciences in Beijing, says he thinks that most of the Vatican proposals are acceptable to Beijing.

He reiterated Yang’s sentiment that if some cooperation on the ordaining of bishops could be achieved, it would also show China in a good light to the world as a nation secure in its own identity and with respect for religious belief.

He went as far as to tell the Global Times, “It is in the best interests of the Vatican, Beijing and the Catholic Church if an agreement could be reached.”

But Chen Tsung-ming, from the Verbiest Institute in Belgium, may have come closest to the mark when he told the Global Times that Beijing’s biggest worry is losing its controlling grip on Churches within China.

Another meeting between the two parties was expected towards the end of August. No dates for the meeting have been publicly promulgated, but if and when it does take place, it will undoubtedly prompt another round of second guessing.

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