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Call for new China dialogue may fall on deaf ears

Hong Kong (UCAN): Church in China watchers have expressed reservations over the recent plea to Beijing for a resumption of dialogue from Fernando Cardinal Filoni, the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples (Sunday Examiner, November 4), fearing that poor timing will see it fall on deaf ears.

Precious Blood Sister Beatrice Leung Kit-fun, a professor of politics in Macau, said the gesture, though well-intentioned, may have been flawed by an insufficient grasp of China’s current situation.

“State leaders were busy on the eve of the national congress (November 8 to 15), as they only finalised the list of candidates for the Politburo standing committee at the last minute,” she said, noting, “They are very likely to turn a deaf ear to his call now, though they may reconsider it later when the new leadership discusses religious affairs.”

She also expressed pessimism about any significant progress in Church-state relations, predicting that China’s authorities “will tighten control on ideology in future to maintain internal stability.”

She believes the April communiqué from the Vatican Commission for the Catholic Church in China, which emphasised, “Evangelisation cannot be achieved by sacrificing essential elements of the Catholic faith and discipline,” was sufficiently clear and adequate.

“The cardinal’s message is tantamount to a Chinese idiom,” she said. “It is like painting legs on a snake.”

Anthony Lam Sui-ki, senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre, agreed that this is not a good time for China to respond to Cardinal Filoni’s message.

“The Beijing authorities have all kinds of urgent issues to deal with now,” he said. “Do they have spare time to handle Sino-Vatican relations?”

However, he acknowledged that the cardinal’s letter was a positive attempt to express his hope for dialogue while pointing out there are stumbling blocks.

“We have to be patient,” he said. “Even if China remains silent, I believe his message will still arouse some attention.”

Hong Kong-based Kwun Ping-hung pointed out that while Cardinal Filoni called for fresh dialogue, he also reiterated the Church’s preconditions and stressed the Holy See position by mentioning the three stumbling blocks: the state’s control over the Church, the appointment of bishop candidates and the interference of illicit bishops in episcopal ordinations.

“Even if Beijing wishes to respond, one can hardly be optimistic that it will forsake its bottom line which is incompatible with the Vatican’s position,” he said.

He speculated that some bishops from official Church communities may feel they are now free from pressure to quit the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, as they would sense the Vatican’s eagerness for dialogue that was apparent in Cardinal Filoni’s message.

However, he added that the message may prompt the helpless unofficial Church community to get closer to the government, so whether the article is helping reconciliation between the two split communities or not is questionable.

On the other hand, Ren Yanli, a retired researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, has a different view.

He believes the cardinal clearly stated the Church’s principles and position in his message, though “the underground (unofficial) Catholics may think it is too vague, while the open (official) Catholics may think it is too strong.”

Ren also showed appreciation of Cardinal Filoni’s initiative in attempting to break the deadlock between China and the Vatican, and commended the timing of his suggestion of creating a high-level commission for dialogue, just at the moment of Communist Party leadership transition.

“The goodwill gesture may attract the Chinese leaders’ attention and benefit the development of relations,” he said.

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