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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.