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Habemus Papam! Crowds fill the square waving flags and books. As the crowd catches sight of the Pontiff-to-be, a diminuendo takes hold, as the words of the Holy Father boom across the expanse. But the square is not St Peter’s Basilica but Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The waving flags are the “Five-star Red flag”. The books are the words of Mao and the Pontiff-to-be is none other than Xi Jinping.

Relationships between the Vatican and Beijing have been far from smooth. For a start, the Holy See has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but, due to space constraints in the Vatican, the Taiwanese Representative Office has no choice but to be physically situated in Rome. Italy does not maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan. This is far from a small point of contention.

Diplomacy aside, the Vatican-China conflict has, at its baseline, differences of rudimentary religious foundations. The Communist Party-state’s designation of five ‘official’ religions, of which Catholicism is one, requires registration to the state-designated ‘religions’ institution: in this case, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). All five ‘official’ religious organizations contain the word ‘Patriotic’ in their titles: a telltale sign of to whom their allegiance lies. All official Catholic churches in China must be registered with the CPCA, under one key condition: the severing of ties with the Vatican. Much to the Holy See’s chagrin, these so-called ‘Catholic’ bishops are appointed by the Chinese party-state, not the Vatican, and for many of the 10 million Catholics in China (across both official and the unofficial ‘underground’ church), this is not the religion they signed up for: this is state interference with religion.

It is nothing new that the state has been traditionally viewed as atheistic – just look back to 1648, heralded as the birthdate of the sovereign states system. The Peace of Westphalia represented the severing of ties between the state and religion. Religion was seen as antithetic to all things sovereign, and the end of the Thirty Years’ War in the Holy Roman Empire by the Peace. We are often called to treat China on its own terms, and so we should. Yet it the ongoing Vatican-China conflict seems to reinforce this very issue that was faced in the West over 500 years ago, whilst China was transitioning from the Ming to Qing Dynasties. Just like Westphalia ended the interference of religion in the affairs state, present-day China does not want religious interference in the affairs of the Communist party-state.

But it should not be a question of either the state or religion. Without wishing to add to the already somewhat-hyperbolic comparisons of ‘China is what the West is not’, the Roman Catholic Church in the West remains spiritually guided and governed by the Holy Father –the same as the Roman Catholic Church worldwide – with all appointments to the cardinalate and episcopate overseen by the Vatican. At the same time, there is, of course, political deference to the state. Yet this is not unusual: the Church of England is headed by the Queen, yet being a member of the Church of England, of course, does not mean that one is a monarchist, nor does it mean that one need not obey by the laws of the land. Spiritual loyalty to the Pope as the Holy Father on Earth, political loyalty to the state – a formula that is often deemed incongruous in the case of China, yet why should it be?

Pope Francis – the so-called ‘people’s pope’ – has recently come under fierce criticism for his olive branch of détente with the CPCA. His call for the Vatican to temporarily recognize seven bishops appointed by the CPCA, and for two existing bishops ordained in communion with the Vatican, resign, to make way for the former. For Cardinal Joseph Zen, retired bishop of Hong Kong, this is akin to ‘putting your wolves before your flock, and they are going to make a massacre.’ In recent days, the Pope has been portrayed as genuflecting to the CCP, yet for Cardinal Zen, any concessions he makes to Beijing equivalent to ‘rewarding traitors’ and ‘castigating the faithful.’ From 1st February this year, attendance to Mass at underground Catholic churches was banned. All underground ‘priests’ were required to register their church with their local authorities (and thus the CPCA). This can only mean one thing – removal of the dog collar, removal of the vestments, and being silenced from celebrating the breaking of bread and sharing of wine.

The Holy See is not the world’s biggest power, not just in physical size, but also in political might. Its battle with China is akin to David and Goliath, yet the Vatican’s battle may be even harder. International relations stresses how the way to show weakness is to concede and defer, and the Vatican’s continued concessions to the PRC will only bolster the CCP’s grasp over religion across the land.

The picture may look bleak. The souls of the righteous may not be in the hands of God but the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. And should the Pope decide to make his genuflections to the CCP a regular occurrence, it will only show one thing: the Chinese Communist Party is one step closer to winning its battle with the Vatican, reinforcing what Thucydides once said: “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”

As cries of ‘Habemus Papam’ filled the Vatican in 2013 at the announcement of Jorge Maria Bergolio as Pope Francis, few expected the Bishop of Rome to be so close to the Bishop of the CPCA. The Vatican should resist the temptation of the CCP, guised under détente and diplomacy. The Vatican-China conflict will not end anytime soon, unless concessions are made, concessions so big that will undermine the heart of the Catholic Church. And as PRC moves ever closer to let Xi Jinping to stay in power in perpetuum, this does not bode well for the role of religion under what may soon be a return to one-man rule.





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