Thu, Oct 04, 2018 - Page 8 News List

A step toward religious freedom

By Chang Meng-jen 張孟仁

For about three years now, reports and rumors have been going around that China and the Holy See were working toward an agreement about how to appoint Catholic bishops in China. The long-awaited agreement was finally signed on Sept. 22, during the Mid-Autumn Festival holiday, marking a major breakthrough in relations between the Vatican and China.

First it was rumored that the agreement would be signed at the end of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in November 2016, then in June last year and, once again, in March.

The repeated rumors were all signs that the two sides were forging ahead with their negotiations.

Now, the determined efforts of Pope Francis and Beijing have allowed prejudices to be set aside so that the two sides can join hands to accomplish the China dream that previous popes had not managed to achieve.

The word “provisional” in the title of the agreement could suggest that it is a break between rounds of a struggle, or that the two sides are still feeling their way across the river. Nonetheless, it definitely means that both sides have given up their bottom lines to open up new prospects.

It does, after all, take two to tango.

Compared with Francis’ ceaseless enthusiasm and determination to open the door to China, the Chinese side has had to make a considerable effort to overcome its own internal problems.

Francis’ political thinking is more left-wing than his recent predecessors.

His statement that it is better to make an all-out effort than to be resigned to one’s fate made clear his determination to care for China’s long-suffering Catholics.

It is precisely because he is so concerned about the series of repressive actions that China has taken against Catholicism in recent years that Francis, in his wisdom, prefers to see the big picture.

He hopes to use the agreement to try to reduce the persecution suffered by Chinese Catholics and to promote mutual tolerance and eventual integration between the government-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Vatican-loyal universal church.

Faced with calls from internal opposition forces, Francis has chosen the path of greater love to soothe their anxieties and have them lay down their grudges.

This means encouraging people to forget the painful experiences of the past and encourage all Chinese Catholics to come together and be free of persecution.

Of course this is easier said than done, so it remains to be seen how the two communities will interact as time goes by.

It should also be understood that there is not necessarily a consensus within the Chinese establishment regarding the agreement.

There are various government departments concerned with religious affairs, including the United Front of so-called democratic parties, the Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

These are all vested interest groups that have in the past controlled and even confiscated church property.

Now that the agreement between the Holy See and China has been signed, the State Administration for Religious Affairs will inevitably lose some of its power, since it must now pay heed to the Holy See’s standpoints.

The shape of its original territory of interests will surely undergo big changes.

In other words, China’s willingness to make compromises to reach an agreement must have an effect on these established vested interests.

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