Will the Chinese Communists recognize the Pope?

catholic church in china2If you hadn't seen it yet, Edward Cody had a front-page story in Sunday's Washington Post on warming relations between the Communist government in China and the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, if you hadn't heard, the two sides are moving closer to normal relations. Apparently there are predictions that the diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China will normalize, whatever that means, before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Here are the first three graphs, which curiously leave out the effect on underground churches if Vatican ties were normalized (in fact that subject isn't mentioned until much later in the article):

HONG KONG, April 22 -- After more than half a century of hostility, China and the Roman Catholic Church have inched within reach of normal relations, a historic shift aimed at improving the lives of 10 million Chinese who regularly practice the faith, according to leaders and analysts on both sides of the divide.

The irregular contacts, often made at meetings in Rome between Vatican diplomats and Chinese Communist Party officials, remain clouded by mutual suspicion, they said. Party elders particularly fear that the church could become a rallying point for anti-government agitation as it did in Eastern Europe.

But the process has overcome a major stumbling block with recent signals from the Vatican that it is willing to break with Taiwan and set up diplomatic relations with Beijing as part of an overall accord guaranteeing the church's role in China.

Exactly how will the lives of 10 million Catholics be improved? I could give you a few reasons, but Cody never fully backs that statement up. How about the possibility that normalized relations could improve the lives of 1.3 billion Chinese? Political speculation -- the bread and butter of The Washington Post -- is rampant throughout the article, with comparisons to John Paul II's influence on Poland and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. No surprise there. The comparison is just too easy, although the situations are vastly different.

Nevertheless, the effect on China as a nation would be huge. What about the effect on Taiwan? And then there are those pesky house churches to deal with. Cody does not mess around in describing what could be quite dramatic in several ways, depending on how things shake down:

Beijing recently sponsored a conference of world Buddhist leaders, and authorities in general have relaxed controls on Chinese Christians who worship outside officially authorized venues as long as they do not question the party's political leadership.

In any case, the distinction has blurred in recent years between government-sanctioned Catholic churches, which welcome about a third of China's estimated 10 million Catholics, and the unsanctioned, or underground, churches that claim the loyalty of the other two-thirds. Priests have started moving openly between sanctioned and unsanctioned churches, and local government officials often look the other way at unsanctioned worship as long as it remains focused on religion.

In addition to Roman Catholics, China has an estimated 15 million Protestants in sanctioned churches and several times that number in unofficial groups, including homegrown evangelical movements. Both Christian communities have taken root in China as the legacy of foreign missionary work before the Communist Party took power in 1949. More recently, they have been fueled by yearnings for a spiritual framework among an increasing number of Chinese. Most of these Christians have little association with a unified hierarchy, however, and are not involved in the contacts between the Vatican and Beijing.

"And especially the newer bishops," Cardinal [Joseph] Zen [Ze-kiun of Hong Kong] said in an interview. "Everybody knows they were appointed by the Holy Father."

Vatican and Chinese diplomats could swiftly work out a formula acceptable to both sides if they received instructions to do so from senior leaders, Ren [Yanli, a specialist in church-state relations at the government's Chinese Academy of Social Sciences,] predicted. Only a few bishops from among the 120 active in China would have to be retired as part of a formal Vatican-Beijing agreement, he suggested. They include those most closely associated with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a government-sponsored group that refuses the pope's authority, and perhaps some veteran clerics who have taken sharply anti-government stands during their years in the underground church movement.

"I can confidently say these are not major problems," Zen said. "They can be overcome."

Not major problems? Communist Chinese leaders would agree to retiring bishops appointed by the government? Bishops would refuse to recognize the authority of the Pope? How is this not a major deal?

China's government is changing, that much is clear. As business modernization and economic needs drives the country's change, the country is starting to look more and more like the West. The more nebulous area of free speech and religious freedom is another matter. Is this changing as well? Could this ultimately mean recognition of the Falun Gong movement?

The religion angle in China's modernization is huge and ironic considering that when the West modernized many assumed it would toss off religion. It's something that reporters ought not to miss.

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