American Catholics mount 'civil war' within Church over China-Vatican talks

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/6 19:50:00 Last Updated: 2018/2/7 17:41:10

China is the best implementer of Catholic social doctrine: Archbishop Sorondo

Experts say recent controversies in the Catholic world about the China-Vatican talks are being inflamed by US commentators who theologically disapprove of Pope Francis

Some Church officials have been paying China extravagant compliments, annoying conservatives

Catholics participate in a 2015 Christmas parade in Liuhe village, Shanxi Province. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Even as China and the Vatican are reportedly coming close to an agreement on the appointment of Chinese bishops, controversy and confusion continue to pervade the Catholic world both in and outside China.

On Monday, Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun escalated the debate by rebuffing the words of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of His Holiness, as "specious fallacies," warning that the Vatican's deal with China will force China's underground communities "into a bird cage."

China broke off relations with the Holy See in 1951 and established the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) to supervise Catholics in the country. The CPCA does not recognize the authority of the pope, and a parallel "underground" Church exists which recognizes papal authority.

Parolin, who lead the long dialogue with China, denied Cardinal Zen's previous accusation that there was a rift between the pope and his advisors.

"The Holy See works to find a synthesis of truth and a practicable way to respond to the legitimate expectations of the faithful, inside and outside China," Parolin told website Vatican Insider on January 31.

In the meantime, some Western media outlets described the Vatican's deal with China as a "capitulation" after news broke out last week that the Vatican had asked two underground bishops to stand aside and make way to government-backed bishops.

Massimo Faggioli, Professor of Historical Theology at the Villanova University, said the recent controversy surrounding China was partially fanned by "Catholic commentators in the US who do not like Pope Francis theologically or politically."

"Criticism coming from the US against Francis' moves toward China is an instrument of the theological opposition to the rest of Francis' pontificate and they are not concerned about China really," Faggioli told the Global Times in an email Monday.

"[They] are trying to start a civil war in the Catholic world," Faggioli said.

The pope's teachings on family and marriage, which controversially allow the divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion, resulted in theological and political opposition in the West and criticism that his position has violated Catholic laws.

Since news of an imminent deal between the Vatican and China was released, a shockwave has swept through the Catholic world, with some right-wing commentators in the West drawing an analogy between the potential agreement and Judas Iscariot's betrayal of Jesus to the High Priest Caiaphas in the Bible.

EWTN, a global Catholic television network based in the US, invited a panel to discuss the issue on February 1, which criticized China's "human rights record," slammed Vatican officials for their appeasement but stopped short of criticizing Pope Francis.

Western social media like Twitter has also been rife with criticism of the Vatican, with some calling this is "the darkest moment" in Vatican history and asking the Holy See to "repent." Certain Protestant groups have also added to the noise, some even resorting to heated language reminiscent of their Reformation pioneers.

Not just Church groups, Western media outlets have also helped amplify the civil war within the Catholic Church. The Wall Street Journal published two stories two days in a row this month, each in a critical tone, accusing Pope Francis of "bowing to China" and saying his calculation clashes with his image as a champion of the oppressed.

But Faggioli said Cardinal Zen is not part of that conspiracy. "The case of cardinal Zen is different, of course, even though Zen's statements have been used by those who know very little about the Catholic Church in China and the history of Vatican diplomacy," he added.

Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at the Center of European Studies at the Renmin University of China and a Vatican affairs expert, said the current confusion in the Catholic world will not affect the pope's pursuance of an agreement on bishop appointment with China.

"I don't think this can change the pope's decision, but certainly it will take some time for the Church to explain the decision to the Catholics and the people of the world who are following it very closely," he told the Global Times.

Praise for China

The Church is certainly doing a lot to help Catholics understand more about the real China, which is evident from a recent interview by Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, who was profuse in his praise of China.

"At this moment, those who best realize the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese," the Vatican Insider's Italian version quoted him as saying on February 2.

Archbishop Sorondo also said he found China to be an extraordinary country. "(In China) you do not have shantytowns, you do not have drugs, young people do not take drugs. There is a positive national consciousness, they want to show that they have changed, they already accept private property," he told Vatican Insider.

He also mentioned the US, but in an unfavorable tone. "(In China) the economy does not dominate politics, as it happens in the United States, according to the Americans themselves," he said.

"The world is dynamic and is evolving. Today's China is not what it was during the years of John Paul II; it is neither Russia during the Cold War," he added.

To those who might have some untoward opinions about China, Sorondo's extravagant compliments about the country might come across as waving a red rag in front of a bull.

Indeed, his words have gone viral on social media and triggered criticism from conservatives across the world.

The Stream, a national daily based in the US with an obvious Christian outlook, called the archbishop "a sloppy thinker," "an embarrassment to the Church" and "an anti-American Argentinean socialist" who believes a powerful government can solve all social problems. It also speculated that the archbishop's good impression of China was a result of his being "treated like visiting royalty" during his trip.

Sorondo visited China in 2017 for a conference against human organ trafficking. The archbishop told the Global Times in August that, in regards to fighting organ trafficking "it is the great hope that China could be a model for all the countries, especially those in Asia and the Pacific region."

He also told the Global Times during his visit that "Pope Francis loves China and loves the people of China, its history and population. We hope China can have a great future."

Vietnamese model?

Experts have long cited the Vietnamese model as a possible example for China and the Vatican to follow. Implemented by Cardinal Parolin in 1996, the model requires bishops to gain approval from both the Vatican and the Vietnamese government.

"The bottom line for the Vatican is the role of the pope in the appointment of bishops: without this there is no Catholic Church. How this role can be defined then will be in the negotiations," Sisci said.

Yan Kejia, director of the Institute of Religious Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said it's still too early to predict what model will be adopted in the deal between China and the Vatican.

But, Yan added, a special mechanism should be established to avoid confusion and a possible breach of the agreement in the future.

Taiwan not an issue

Hopes for diplomatic ties between Beijing and the Vatican apparently have alarmed Taiwan, whose relationship with the Vatican could possibly be threatened once the mainland and the Vatican strike a deal on bishop appointments.

"No matter what model they choose, I think Taiwan stands to lose the most if Vatican-Beijing relations are reestablished," said Yang Fenggang, a professor at Purdue University's Center on Religion and Chinese Society.

Five lawmakers from Taiwan's "foreign affairs and interior committees" left on February 3, hoping to have an audience with the pope, AFP reported.

The group turned out to have an appointment with a Vatican official instead, who told the Taiwan lawmakers that their current dialogue with the Chinese mainland mainly focuses on ecclesial issues, such as the appointment of bishops, Taiwan's Central News Agency reported.

Newspaper headline: Crux of the matter

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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