Friday, January 04, 2013

China: The Vatican and Xi Jinping's "light baggage"

Professor Ren Yanli, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Research Institute of World Religions, has for decades been following events in the Chinese Catholic Church and the relations between mainland China and the Vatican. 

He is a long-time representative of those academic circles which are routinely consulted by Chinese political leaders when looking for background information to start decision-making processes. 

Before Christmas, Professor Ren flew from Beijing to Rome, where he held high level meetings in the Holy See.

Professor, how do you assess the Pope's comments about Chinese leaders in his Christmas message Urbi et Orbi?

If I am not mistaken, this is the first time that a Pope has made an explicit and direct reference to the "new leaders of the People's Republic of China" in a public speech, giving his best wishes in view of the high task that awaits them. Until now there was a preference for more indirect expressions, such as the "Chinese Nation" or the "Chinese people". 

To me, it seems like the Holy See is sending a sign directly to the new Chinese leaders reaffirming that it is always ready to return to the path of dialogue. It confirms the authoritativeness of the proposal put forth by cardinal Fernando Filoni, who in October suggested the creation of an official high level Commission between the Holy See and the Chinese government to solve the problems affecting the life of the Church in China.

According to some observers, Filoni's proposal, which was presented on the eve of the change of leadership in China, was untimely and destined to fall in a vacuum.

I think the exact opposite is true. These signals and this proposal do not fall in a vacuum at all. They provide answers to questions that had been circulating for some time within China's leadership. In recent times, some officials were saying they were uncertain as to whether the Vatican wanted to continue along the path of dialogue or if there had been second thoughts. Filoni's proposal attempts to provide a clear answer to these uncertainties. 

The timing was also right to draw the attention of the new leadership and to reiterate, at the beginning of their term of office, what the true intention of the Vatican is.

Yet the events surrounding Bishop Ma Daqin - who was punished with the revocation of the episcopal office for resigning from the "patriotic" entity that embodies the religious policy of the regime - for many, represents a contemptuous response to any proposal of dialogue.

These interpretations connect two separate things which have no relationship between them. The punishment against Ma Daqin was formalized after Filoni's proposal, but its actual effects were already in force since July when the bishop, at the end of the ceremony for his episcopal ordination, had declared his intention to leave the Patriotic Association. 

The decision to punish him had already been taken and was not made public, perhaps to avoid provoking international reactions ahead of the Congress of the Communist Party. In any case, the measures against Bishop Ma cannot be interpreted as a response to Filoni's proposal. 

It is like a residue from the past. For me, this incident highlights the contradictions regarding the condition of the Church in China that need to be resolved.

What are you referring to?

Now the Episcopal Conference and the Patriotic Association say that Ma is no longer a bishop. 

But for the Chinese Catholics Ma Daqin is a bishop and he remains a bishop, as he was appointed in communion with the Pope and was ordered with the liturgy of episcopal consecration. He has not committed any crime against the Church, or against the Homeland. He is a good citizen. He has not hurt anyone. He has not criticized the religious policy of the government. He has simply withdrawn from the Patriotic Association as a personal choice. 

It is the first time that someone is punished because for withdrawing from an association.  

Even the members of the Party can withdraw if they want to and are not punished for it.  

Furthermore, the bishop's role is not a bureaucratic or political one that can be revoked by the Episcopal Conferences. The Council of the Bishops of China is the only council in the world that claims this right. 

What are the effects of such a punitive measure?

This case exacerbates divisions in the Church in China, and paradoxically reinforces and confirms the perspectives of the so-called clandestine sectors that consider it futile to try to communicate with the Chinese government, because it only wants to dominate and manipulate the nature of the Church. 

I am not Catholic, but I am concerned in particular with the damage that the punishment of Ma Daqin brings to my homeland and my government. The whole world is a witness to this scandal. Formally, the punishment was imposed by the Episcopal Conference. But if the government lets it happen, everybody blames the government. 

Even cardinal Zen has noted that the punishment against Ma Daqin has the effect of damaging "the name of the new leadership".

It is exactly like this.  Why have they applied the punitive measures only now? The public entities should have left things in order before passing the baton on to new leadership. But instead they bequeathed these failures.

What attitude should the Holy See take to facilitate a restart?

For the Holy See, now is not the time to make new choices. The right path was already chosen more than five years ago with the Pope's letter to the Chinese Catholics. 

The thought was expressed very clearly in it: engage in dialogue; find solutions together with Beijing's officials and explain why those procedures that affect the very nature of the Church must be scrapped, that same nature that even the Pope himself cannot change. 

Cardinal Filoni's recent proposals show that the approach remains the same; it has not changed since the gestures of openness shown by John XXIII, Paul VI, Cardinal Casaroli and John Paul II.


Have you personally seen signs of interest from the new Chinese leaders regarding the latest Vatican moves?

It is early to make predictions. But there have been signs that they have started to study the files. They are gathering information. The appointed president Xi Jinping and the other future leaders are young people who grew up in China in recent decades. They are realists and have shown that they want to deal with problems in a resolute manner. 

With them, the dialogue already launched between Beijing and the Holy See will be able to start again. They do not bear the responsibility for what happened in the past. And they can walk quickly, because they carry light baggage on their shoulders. 

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