The Vatican has been talking to the People's Republic of China about normalizing relations, at least as much as "normal" relations are possible with the communist state. That would mean trading Vatican recognition of Taiwan for Beijing's acceptance of the operations of the Catholic Church in the PRC. A deal seemed to be in the works, though no one knew when it would be sealed.
Now, for the second time in four days, Beijing has consecrated a bishop without the Vatican's approval. Which demonstrates the PRC's determination to retain control over the most fundamental spiritual decisions of its citizens. "This threatens to destroy the dialogue between China and the Vatican," warned Bernardo Cervellera, head of the AsiaNews service in Rome.
Is anyone really surprised?
There has been no official contact between Beijing and the Vatican for more than a half century, since the new revolutionary government expelled the Papal Nuncio in 1951. Since then the Catholic Church has recognized the Republic of China on Taiwan as China's legitimate government. And the Chinese government has attempted to control Catholics who resisted its atheistic teachings through the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, thought to represent roughly one-third of the estimated 10 to 12 million Catholics now in China.
Despite persecution against unofficial and underground congregations that continues to this day, the Vatican has retained the allegiance of most Chinese Catholics. Nevertheless, normalization would offer an enormous boon. It would allow the Vatican to shape the rapidly growing fellowship in the world's most populous nation. It also would provide believers with some measure of legal protection.
But the negatives are equally obvious. One is to downgrade Taiwan's status in the world. Although a democratic and capitalist state, this nation of 23 million is recognized by only a couple dozen countries. Beijing continually attempts to force an embrace and even the U.S. doesn't appear to be an entirely reliable friend of Taipei -- denying permission on Wednesday to Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian permission to overnight in the U.S. on his way to Latin America.
A shift in Vatican recognition would exacerbate Taipei's isolation. That might not be the main consideration of the Catholic Church. But it should be an important one.
Moreover, it is evident that the PRC will attempt to constrict the Church's operations irrespective of any agreement that it signs. In February Pope Benedict XVI, who after his installation last year indicated his interest in improving relations with Beijing, nominated as Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong.
Cardinal Zen was reviled in Beijing for supporting Hong Kong democracy advocates and advocating that the PRC's geriatric autocracy "tell the truth" about Tiananmen Square. Chinese officials were quoted as warning the Vatican against interference in their internal affairs and worrying that Cardinal Zen (who, ironically, favors restoration of relations) was issuing a challenge not unlike that emanating from Pope John Paul II to the Soviet empire after his elevation.
In fact, that challenge offers a good model for the Vatican. In seeking to reach an accommodation with Beijing, the Catholic Church's first responsibility is to promote God's Kingdom. That means winning space for evangelism, protecting believers as they worship, and freely conducting ecclesiastical affairs. It also means the proverbial speaking truth to power, challenging dictators who routinely violate the basic rights and essential dignity of the human person.
After the latest controversy, the conventional wisdom is that the Vatican will break off discussions with Beijing for a time. But eventually the two sides are likely to come to terms. If so, the Catholic Church must never forget the stakes: The future of more than 1.3 billion Chinese and Taiwanese.
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