Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 8

The death of Pope John Paul II underlines the gulf that still exists between the Roman Catholic Church and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), two of the world’s largest and most important bodies.

It was the ardent desire of the late pontiff to visit China during his lifetime, but he was denied even the chance to visit Hong Kong during an Asian tour in 1999. At the time, Beijing pointed out that the Vatican still maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan, underscoring the fact that, though the pope is viewed by most as a religious leader, Beijing sees him – as it sees the Dalai Lama – as a political figure.

John Paul II reportedly wrote a personal letter in 1983 to Deng Xiaoping, China’s top leader at the time, and another to Jiang Zemin in 1989. In the last two decades, quite a few meetings have been held by the two sides. In fact, the most recent meeting took place only days before the pope’s death, when Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, a high-ranking Vatican official, met with Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu in Beijing, as well as officials charged with handling religious affairs.

However, the PRC still does not maintain diplomatic relations with the Vatican. As Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said on Tuesday (which happened to be the feast of Qing Ming, when Chinese traditionally honor the dead): “We are ready to improve our relations with the Vatican [on the basis of two principles]…They are: First, the Vatican must sever the so-called ‘diplomatic relations’ with Taiwan, recognize that the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. Second, the Vatican must not interfere with the internal affairs of China in the name of religion.”

The Church has made it clear that the first principle, diplomatic relations with Taiwan, is not an insuperable obstacle. The day after the pope’s death, the bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, confirmed that the Vatican was ready to end its official ties with Taiwan. “The Holy See has been thinking of giving up Taiwan,” the bishop told reporters after a requiem mass for the pontiff. “This is a difficult [decision] but it has decided to do it. There is, however, no way that [it would] do so before negotiations. We have got to start negotiations before talking about what we can give.”

In fact, the Church downgraded its relations with Taiwan a quarter century ago. Since 1980, the Vatican’s embassy in Taipei has been headed by a charge d’affaires rather than a cleric of ambassadorial rank. However, as long as diplomatic ties exist between the Vatican and Taiwan, a rapprochement with Beijing seems impossible. This situation was underlined by the presence of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian at the pope’s funeral, and the noticeable absence of official Chinese representation.

A furious China expressed its “strong dissatisfaction” to the Vatican and to Italy for issuing the visa to President Chen. However, Italy had no choice but to issue the visa because under the Lateran Concordat of 1929, Italy has an obligation to grant visas to facilitate the transport of foreign delegations to the Vatican. And Chen is still recognized by the Vatican as the president of the Republic of China on Taiwan.

Chen’s attendance at the papal funeral was a political coup. The Vatican is the only European government that still has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and the papal funeral provided an opportunity for Chen to set foot on European soil for the first time as president.

From the Vatican’s standpoint, however, breaking diplomatic relations with Taiwan is a price that it is willing to pay. There are some one million Christians in Taiwan, with Protestants outnumbering Catholics two to one. And even in the absence of diplomatic relations, Taipei would not interfere with the appointment of Catholic bishops, so a diplomatic break is likely to have little practical impact on the Church’s activities.

It is China’s second condition that presents the problem. Beijing considers the right to appoint Chinese Catholic bishops to be an “internal affair” in which the Vatican should not interfere. The Vatican, of course, feels that the choosing of bishops around the world is a religious matter that does not normally involve the secular authorities. After all, the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 decreed that “the right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and of itself exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority.”

More pertinently, there are some 12-15 million Catholics in China, although the government puts the figure at 5.3 million. This lower official estimate is probably the membership of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which was set up by the government and which does not recognize the authority of the pope – though it sent condolences upon learning of John Paul’s death. Catholics who are not members of the association are usually referred to as the “underground church,” but it is often difficult to differentiate between the two groups. It is this “underground church” and government repression of their activities that concerns the Vatican.

According to the testimony of Michael Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor before the House International Relations Committee, Catholics loyal to the Vatican continue to be persecuted in China. Recently, the Vatican reported that Chinese security forces had detained the 86-year-old bishop of Wenzhou, Monsignor James Lin Xili, on March 20. A lay official of the diocese was detained two days later. Similarly, the Connecticut-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, which monitors religious persecution in China, reported that Bishop Yao Liang, also in his 80s, has been detained. The foundation further reported that yet another octogenarian, a priest by the name of Wang Jinling, had also been arrested.

The Vatican has diplomatic relations with 174 countries, including Cuba, and the appointment of bishops is not normally considered interference in a country’s internal affairs. In fact, Cuban President Fidel Castro personally expressed “the most heartfelt condolences of the Cuban people and government” and declared three days of official mourning in honor of the pope. “Humanity will preserve an emotional memory of the tireless work of His Holiness John Paul II in favor of peace, justice and solidarity among all people,” the Cuban leader said. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that the Vatican would be so unwilling to cede authority on the issue of nominating bishops.

However, if there is one country that might offer a model for agreement between the Vatican and Beijing, that country is Vietnam. While the Vatican has no diplomatic relations with Vietnam, it has been attempting to work out an arrangement for bishops to in effect be endorsed by both the Church and the Vietnamese Government.

Still, this has not worked to the full satisfaction of either party: both want to have the final say on the choice, and so neither is willing to establish formal diplomatic relations. The most contentious issue remains the Vietnamese government’s demand to have the right to approve appointments. With the Church unwilling to yield to such a proviso, quite a few dioceses in Vietnam are still awaiting the appointment of new bishops.

Nor has the issue of appointing bishops been the only sore spot between Beijing and the Vatican. In October 2000, Beijing condemned the Vatican for conferring sainthood on 120 Catholics who were killed in China between 1648 and 1930, including both foreign missionaries and Chinese. Although none of those canonized died at the hands of the communists, Beijing defended their killing by saying that most of them “were executed for violation of Chinese laws during the invasion of China by imperialists and colonialists.” China took as a special insult the fact that the canonizations took place on October 1, China’s National Day, though the Vatican insisted that the date was a coincidence.

The following year, Pope John Paul took the unprecedented step of issuing an apology to China for sins committed by Christians against China in the past. He made clear his desire for improved relations with Beijing by saying: “The normalization of relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See would undoubtedly have positive repercussions.”

Hopefully, the pope’s death, and the emergence of his successor, will provide an opportunity for the question of normalization to be visited anew. Both sides clearly wish for this to happen, it is now just a question of the price each side is willing to pay.

Mr. Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.