A diplomatic dance between China and the Vatican -- coming in the midst of new moves by Beijing to further control religious expression within its borders, and its population in general -- could reach some sort of conclusion this month.
But for some reason the story has, shockingly, received relatively little play in American news outlets. How could that be? Oh, yeah! The all-consuming presidential election campaign. Can't forget that.
So what's going on?
Beijing and Rome have been cautiously negotiating over giving the Vatican a small say -- the emphasis being on "small" -- in the appointment of bishops for Chinese Catholics.
It's a complicated tale that's been unfolding over the past weeks while the American press has been regurgitating news, both real and imagined, concerning Clinton-Trump.
Let's do a bit of unpacking.
This Guardian story from late October provides a succinct overview. It opens as follows:
For more than 50 years the Vatican’s relationship with China has been intractable. But if Pope Francis has his way, a deal to bridge what many believe is an insurmountable divide between the Roman Catholic church and the communist Chinese government could be announced within the next 30 days.
According to one person who has closely followed developments, the pope would like to seal a deal before the conclusion on 20 November of the Holy Year of Mercy, which was called by the pontiff to celebrate acts of forgiveness.
Any agreement that solves the thorniest issue between the two sides – the Vatican’s right to appoint its own bishops in China – would represent the most consequential diplomatic feat of the Francis’s papacy.
It would also spur a debate about whether Francis – a Jesuit who has always promoted the importance of “encounters” but has declined to meet the Dalai Lama – has been too willing to ignore concerns about human rights and religious freedom for the sake of furthering the Vatican’s own interests in a country that is officially atheist. While evangelical Christianity has seen explosive growth in China, Catholicism has lagged behind.
Did you catch the flimsy sourcing? Just one unnamed source for a story of this magnitude. But never mind that for now. Let's proceed.
Cooperating with China is a dicey endeavor for any religious group claiming a divinely mandated moral high ground. Criticism is sure to ensue, as it has.
This Wall Street Journal story is a prime example. (I hope the Journal's legendary firewall won't block you.) And this piece from Catholic News Agency via Crux, the Catholic news site, notes that if a Rome-Beijing agreement does come to pass, and it looks life the church's agreement with Vietnam, it could gain the Vatican very little in practice.
Pope Francis, however, apparently feels that the climate change crisis may provide common ground upon which the Vatican and China can improve their relationship. Read about that here.
(As if the Chinese government wasn't enough to deal with, Rome also has to contend with underground Chinese Catholics choosing to ordain their own priests, infuriating the Vatican.)
I'm not about to to advise the Vatican on its delicate relationship with China. Yet I can't help but feel -- given a series of recent moves by the authoritarian and risk averse Chinese leadership -- that Rome's optimism may be over-inflated.
Here's what I mean.
First, there's this recent piece of news of closer government monitoring of Chinese religious groups of all sorts, as provided by the New York Times. Naturally, CNA and Crux looked at this through a more Catholic-centric prism.
But these new restrictions are almost penny ante compared to an all-important rating system for every Chinese citizen -- openly religious or not -- that may be in the offering. This Washington Post story is frightening in the degree of Big Brother micro-control it says Chinese leaders are after.
It opens thusly:
BEIJING -- Imagine a world where an authoritarian government monitors everything you do, amasses huge amounts of data on almost every interaction you make, and awards you a single score that measures how “trustworthy” you are.
In this world, anything from defaulting on a loan to criticizing the ruling party, from running a red light to failing to care for your parents properly, could cause you to lose points.
And in this world, your score becomes the ultimate truth of who you are -- determining whether you can borrow money, get your children into the best schools or travel abroad; whether you get a room in a fancy hotel, a seat in a top restaurant -- or even just get a date.
This is not the dystopian superstate of Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” in which all-knowing police stop crime before it happens. But it could be China by 2020.
It is the scenario contained in China’s ambitious plans to develop a far-reaching social credit system, a plan that the Communist Party hopes will build a culture of “sincerity” and a “harmonious socialist society” where “keeping trust is glorious.”
Gulp! That's a pretty scary proposition. And while the story does not mention religion directly, it does include membership in a "cult" as one more reason for losing points. In China, labeling a religious/spiritual group a "cult" is just another way for for saying the government doesn't like your affiliation.
By all means read the entire Post story. It's both fascinating and chilling, and it should make clear my reason for downplaying Vatican optimism. Here's the link.
However, it breaks, religion reporters should not just wait for a decision.
Now is the time to start speaking to your local Catholic officials and parishioners. Lining up sources and conducting preliminary interviews with members of a Chinese Catholic parish, if one exists in your region, would be a great starting point.