HONG KONG (SE): The benefits of an equitable agreement coming out of the ongoing Vatican-Beijing dialogue seem obvious enough for the Catholic Church, but no one enters into an international negotiation unless there is something in it for them as well, so what’s in it for China?
Writing in the East Asia Forum on February 23, Thomas DuBois, a Hong Kong-based scholar on history and religion, says that China would benefit greatly on the domestic scene, as for some time it has been struggling to find a solution to the religious insurgence that has grown steadily since the 1990s.
DuBois points to a quiet downgrading of the campaign against the Falun Gong as reflecting an understanding by the authorities that the cost of criminalising religion has limits and while the recently promulgated revision of the 2005 Religious Affairs Regulations may indicate a tightening of control, it also points to a policy that will be more accommodating to what China sees as the socially progressive elements of religion.
A better relationship with the Vatican should also cut down on the risk of leakage from the official Church communities into the unofficial communities, as DuBois notes Beijing has become aware that its continued attempts to suppress unregistered Church communities, especially Protestant House Churches, have mostly failed.
It appears that having the Vatican as an ally in a legal Catholic Church has a lot going for it that Beijing would like to have, but at the right price.
DuBois says that Vatican pronouncements on the issue highlight the principled subservience of the Church to secular authority, while at the same time emphasising that the Catholic people of China, including the unrecognised communities and their bishops, are law-abiding citizens.
While DuBois notes that there is no way of predicting how any agreement will play out, official channels within both China and the Vatican have been publicly sanguine about the future, agreeing that the challenge is to build trust and, as the Vatican secretary of state, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, continually points out, that will be a long-term process.