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Speaking Of Asia

When China meets the Catholic Church

Under the first non-European pope in centuries, the Vatican has embarked on the delicate mission of shoring up ties with Beijing.

Last month, tiny Laos - whose Catholics number a mere 45,000 people in the mostly Buddhist nation of seven million - celebrated the first-ever elevation of one of its countrymen as a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church.

That appointment, which underscores the improving relations between the Church and the Communist government in Vientiane, followed the elevation last November of Malaysia's Reverend Archbishop Anthony Soter Fernandez to the second-highest rung of the Church hierarchy. That same month, Archbishop Patrick D' Rozario of Dhaka, Bangladesh, was also similarly anointed in mostly Muslim Bangladesh. The Vatican's ties with Vietnam, and even North Korea, have significantly improved recently.

The appointments and diplomatic manoeuvres are key punctuation marks in the outreach to Asia by Pope Francis, the first pontiff from outside Europe to hold that office since the eighth century.

Now, under his amazing papacy, the Church has embarked on its most delicate mission: shoring up its relationship with China, Asia's dominant power. If the move succeeds, it could profoundly impact both the Church and China, not to speak of wider Asia.

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The early signs have been fairly propitious and there are a few things in common. The Pope and China's President Xi Jinping took office within a day of each other in March 2013. While this is a characterisation that might not particularly appeal to the Chinese leader, both preside over congregations of roughly similar size.

As Mr George Yeo, Singapore's former foreign minister, noted in an article for The Globalist four years ago, China and the Catholic Church are similar in many ways - ancient, run by Mandarins and, these days, seeing their hierarchical structures under attack from the social media revolution.

"If the two are reconciled, the entire world will benefit. And it is not as if the differences are irreconcilable," Mr Yeo, prescient as always, wrote at the time.

ST ILLUSTRATION : MANNY FRANCISCO

Late last year, in the most telling sign of how far along the road that relationship has evolved, Mr Xi sent the Pope a silk drape depicting the famous Stele of Xi'an, also called the Nestorian Stele. Erected during the Tang dynasty, it documents 150 years of early Christianity in China.

MOVING FORWARD SLOWLY

Significantly, the bearer of the gift was no less than Mr Hu Deping, who heads the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation and is a close friend of Mr Xi's. Mr Hu's father was the legendary Hu Yaobang, the reform-minded leader and associate of Deng Xiaoping.

Some Catholic circles took that gesture to mean China was signalling that Christianity could be recognised as an original component of Chinese history and culture, one that long preceded the latter day colonial onslaughts that came with the rallying cries of God, Gold and Glory.

"They're talking slowly, but slow things are good. Things that move fast aren't good," the pontiff said, upon receiving the gift from Beijing. "The Chinese people have my highest esteem."

Vatican-China ties soured in the early 1950s when Chairman Mao Zedong, looking for volunteers to fight the Korean War, came up against resistance from the Church. Ties, severed in 1951, were further strained over the Vatican's ties with Taiwan, as well as the issue of Catholic bishops being appointed by the Communist Party- controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, set up in 1957 to bypass Rome. Many churches in China that stayed loyal to the Pope operated underground and several bishops were jailed.

Gazing back, it is clear that Pope Francis made China a priority from his earliest hours in office. The very next day, he greeted Mr Xi as he took charge as Chinese President. The papal message was acknowledged by Beijing.

That August, possibly aware of his global profile, not to speak of his Chinese ethnicity, the Church sprang a surprise by inviting Singapore's Mr Yeo to join a Vatican special commission. The following year, Mr Yeo was appointed to its Council for New Economy, the only non-European on that body.

People familiar with Vatican developments say the Pope also instructed his Secretary for Relations with States - the de facto foreign minister - to be flexible in dealing with China.

Initially, it seemed as though Beijing was a bit nonplussed by the papal overtures. But, in August 2014, it allowed His Holiness to overfly China on his way to Seoul, South Korea. That marked a turnaround from 1989 when a similar papal request was turned down.

Moving over Chinese airspace, the pontiff sent his customary greetings to the leader of the nation. That message seemed to have been ignored. Later, it came to light that the message was not ignored but missed because it was sent over teleprinter exchange, a method of communication that had fallen into disuse in China.

Today, the two sides are inching towards a rapprochement. On the tricky issue of appointing bishops, a middle way has possibly been found. The Chinese will present a slate of three names for every appointment, to be approved by the Vatican. Should there be objection to all three, a fresh slate will be offered. Some bishops, including a couple that married, may get papal pardons.

It is an arrangement that should suit a Vatican that likes to think it has control of the process of appointing cardinals and bishops, while catering also to Chinese sensitivities. China's scrapping of the one-child policy, with its attendant forced abortions, also removes a major irritant in ties with the Church.

SPIRITUAL VOID?

Pope Francis has indicated he would like to visit China, upsetting some in the Church hierarchy who think the pontiff is moving too fast and too soon with Beijing. They do not need to worry. Such a meeting may not happen for a while yet, particularly since Mr Xi is clearly wary of the Pope's rock star appeal and would not want to be outshone on his own soil.

During his 2015 state visit to the United States, Mr Xi made sure he arrived in Washington only after the pontiff had departed from the city.

Likewise, the Chinese government cannot be unaware that Jaime Cardinal Sin was a central figure in the People's Power protests that ousted the late president Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and that Cardinal Joseph Zen of the Hong Kong diocese, who retired in 2009, was sympathetic to the pro-democracy movement in the territory. A proper summit between two of the most interesting men on the world stage will probably have to wait.

Still, it is interesting to ponder what it is about the Holy See that China finds attractive. Beyond the obvious lure of getting the Vatican to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan, it is possible that other factors are at play.

Could the Beijing leadership be coming round to recognising that communism and Taoist philosophy aren't quite enough to fill the spiritual void in the Chinese people? Beijing is also actively promoting Mahayana Buddhism, although that is partly out of fear that Tibetan Buddhism, built around Vajrayana practices, may hold sway otherwise.

The Pope's encyclical on the environment is also a reminder to Beijing of the issues they need to tackle together. Unlike Mr Donald Trump, who wants to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Pope has no reason to wag his finger at Mr Xi on this score.

Perhaps Beijing also likes the discipline of the Catholic Church and thinks it would be easier to manage, unlike some other streams of Christianity or cults. Popes, after all, tend to be measured and restrained in their public utterances.

It is no secret that China abhors cults. In February 2015, it executed a father and daughter who had beaten a woman to death in a McDonald's outlet in Shandong for rebuffing an attempt to be recruited into the Church of Almighty God, which China regards as a cult.

Above all, Beijing's nod to the Vatican should, perhaps, be seen as a sign of its growing self- confidence - that China can accept Western influences without fear of being captured by it. Indeed, just as Buddhism, which originated in India, has become so heavily Sinicised in China, it is not inconceivable that a broad, Asianised Christianity may emerge there in time, just as it has along southern India's Malabar coast.

The world now has an Argentinian pope who found his true calling after starting life as a nightclub bouncer. Who knows, one day, it may have an apparatchik-turned-priest named Wong or Zhu as the Bishop of Rome.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2017, with the headline 'When China meets the Catholic Church'. Print Edition | Subscribe