CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 15 June 2019

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A reflection on Cardinal Tong’s view of Vatican-Beijing negotiations

SAN DIEGO (SE): Although there are converging interests between China and the Vatican on the appointments of bishops, the two hold quite different agendas in the current, much-discussed negotiations between the two parties.

Richard Madson, a sociologist on religion in China at the University of California in Dan Diego, the United States of America, says in an article posted on AsiaNews on February 13 that the Holy See wants to make the Church a vital part of Chinese society, whereas the ultimate ambition of Beijing is to destroy it.

Reflecting on an article by the bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, published in the Sunday Examiner on February 6, Madson says, “I don’t have any inside information on the status of the negotiations between the Vatican and Beijing. I have been reading the various reports from the international media, Chinese media and Church connected media.”

Madson counsels moving warily, saying, “I would be careful about assuming an agreement has been reached until there is an official announcement.”

He points out that it is dangerous to presume, as in 1999 it was widely reported that a normalisation of Vatican-China relations was imminent, but suddenly everything collapsed into a new period of acrimony between Church leadership and the Chinese government.

He says that his research leads him to believe that the breakdown came over a disagreement about the status of the unofficial Church communities and he believes that things have not changed in this regard.

However, he points out that this time round, there seems to be a new ball game, as comparatively the initial goals are relatively modest.

The 1999 deal embraced a whole package of issues, including normalising diplomatic relations and a severing of ties with Taiwan.

In addition, this time there is an at least partial convergence of interest in communication with and control over the Chinese hierarchy.

The president, Xi Jinping, is calling for rule of law and systematically articulated and enforced regulations to provide better centralised organisation and control.

The Vatican wants rule of canon law, better communication with its bishops and the Church in general, as well as to keep a closer watch on doctrinal orthodoxy and moral discipline.

While Madson points out that a key factor is the appointment of bishops, the great majority are approved by Beijing and the Vatican, a process which is complicated and totally satisfactory to neither side, as there is an ad hoc element about it.

The down side for the Vatican is that nothing follows normal procedures and all is contingent, with information mostly flowing through Hong Kong.

Madson thinks that the negotiations are focussed on establishing an acceptable, formal procedure. At this juncture, he says that it is difficult to get reliable information, but news reports tend to indicate the Vatican is pushing for a kind of Vietnam model, where it proposes and Beijing blesses, but Beijing is more inclined to its own proposals being sent off for a Vatican blessing.

The difference lies in the balance of influence.

The seven illegitimately ordained bishops also pose problems, but at least with four of them there does seem to be a way round things, however, the remaining three, because of other irregularities, present further riddles.

Madson also notes that while there did seem to be a rush to do something within the Year of Mercy, he points out that mercy is not constrained by timelines and can be extended to a later date.

But the sticky ones are the bishops of the unofficial communities, who do not have the blessing of Beijing, nor in some cases, its approval.

For its part, the Vatican would like better communication with and supervision of them, but they have become accustomed to being unsupervised and there may be questions about the orthodoxy of some.

Here there is a bit of convergence between the Vatican and Beijing, as the government would like better control over them as well, because it doesn’t stomach independent actors in any scene.

But he adds that although there is some convergence of interest on this point, there is also significant divergence. The Vatican wants to acknowledge their zeal and fidelity, but the government wants to suppress them, because even a slight potential of a political threat is not on its wish list.

The Vatican is on a sticky wicket, as if it appears to be abandoning the unofficial communities, it would be read as betrayal and worsen the division that already plagues the Church on the mainland.

This makes the Vatican’s ground even stickier, as the government would probably like this to happen, as its behaviour over many years has been aimed at weakening the Church and the current divide plays into this agenda.

Although some immediate interests may converge, Madson says there is certainly divergence of hope, and negotiators on both sides would surely be aware of this.

“Cardinal Tong’s piece pretty much confirms this understanding,” Madson says. “What is new to me is that they may reach an agreement on the first of the issues I mentioned without the other two.”

Although he admits he had been expecting a package deal to come up for agreement, he sees sense in the cardinal’s suggestion that settling one thing may build sufficient trust to move on to others.

He says that if as Cardinal Tong suggests, this enabled a sufficient trust that could allow what he calls an essential freedom to emerge, even if not a perfect freedom, it may be enough to enable further movement.

“But I would emphasise that the hopes of the two sides are very different: one side hopes to make the Church a vital part of Chinese society; the other side really hopes to destroy it. I hope that the Vatican negotiators are aware of this,” Madson concludes.

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