After 60 years of estrangement, China and Vatican should work to restore ties

By Wen Erkang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/12 19:58:39

When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, the Apostolic Internuncio of the Holy See to China first chose to stay in the Chinese mainland to engage with the new government. But the papal's representative was expelled in September 1951 because of misjudging the political situation and support for the Kuomintang. This marked the beginning of the diplomatic rift between China and the Vatican, which has so far lasted for over six decades.

Despite its small population of over 800, the Vatican makes decisions that affect more than 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, roughly the size of China's population.

It is rarely seen that such important international actors do not have diplomatic ties. In fact, normalization of bilateral relations is essential for both.

For the Vatican, the majority of China's 1.3-billion-strong citizens are atheists, which makes it easy to preach the gospel. In addition, the core concern of the Holy See is the promotion of faith instead of economic development. For China, normalized relations with the Vatican can help build its own international reputation and give impetus to the development of its Belt and Road initiative in Catholic countries and regions.

Over the last 20 years, government and civil society of China and the Vatican have expressed the aspiration to improve bilateral relations and made concrete effort toward this end. In 2014, Pope Francis sent his "best wishes" to Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people as his plane flew over China.

The two sides also held culture and art exchanges. In May 2008, the China Philharmonic Orchestra performed an unprecedented concert for Pope Benedict in the Vatican. And the two sides are designing simultaneous exhibitions in Beijing's Forbidden City and the Vatican's Anima Mundi Museum slated for March, which will be the first exchange of artworks between the two.

China has reiterated on various occasions its willingness to forge ahead with diplomatic dialogue with the Vatican on two preconditions - the Vatican must break ties with Taiwan and the Holy See should not interfere in China's internal affairs, not even in the name of religion. The two are hindering China-Vatican ties from further development.

Since the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 2758 which restores the lawful rights of the mainland in the UN in 1971, Taiwan has been blighted by a worsening diplomatic environment. 

The second concern is magisterium of the Catholic Church, the church's authority to establish teachings. The Vatican insists that a bishop must be appointed by the Pope, which, however, was rejected by China. According to Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution, "Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination." The Vatican does not acknowledge the Bishop of China's own choice, and China would not accept the Pope's designation. The stalemate has sustained for over 60 years, with periodic protests damaging efforts at improvement of bilateral ties.

The one-China policy is a non-negotiable principle. But some institutional arrangements could be made for the second precondition - seeking an alternative accepted by both China and the Vatican in the appointment of the bishop. For example, they can refer to the "Vietnamese model" for episcopal appointment, according to which the Pope can select the bishop from a list submitted by the Vietnamese government and the bishop just has symbolic religious authority. But China still insists that Chinese Catholics select their own bishop. So, there is a possibility that the Vatican will compromise, give up its right to selection and appointment, and recognize the legitimacy of the bishop chosen by China.

The Catholic Church is facing triple challenges: surging secularization, rapid growth of Muslim population and child abuse scandals. The number of Muslims is expected to grow from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.8 billion by 2050, according to a Pew Research Center estimate in 2015. That means by the second half of the century, Islam will probably replace Christianity as the world's most popular religion. Moreover, there are fewer young Christians attending regular religious activities. That's why the Vatican needs China much more than vice versa and China holds more bargaining chips.

Restoration of mutual trust and normalization of diplomatic ties between China and the Vatican call for effort on both sides. The Vatican needs to pay more attention to the Chinese people's national sentiment and patriotic spirit. It must avoid the repeat of "canonizing" a number of foreign missionaries and their followers who committed notorious crimes in China.

China should actively engage with the Vatican, seeking common ground while shelving differences. The two sides should reach consensus on bottom lines, which serve as the foundation for the normalization of diplomatic ties.

The author is a research fellow with the Pangoal Institution. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn



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