The Vatican’s China problem

SETH FAISON is a former China correspondent for the New York Times and author of "South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China."

WHEN Mao Tse-tung and his Communist forces swept across China and won its civil war in 1949, the pope’s representative to China, Msgr. Antonio Riberi, sent a message from his office in Nanjing to the 5,500 Catholic missionaries spread across the country. It ordered the faithful to stay on post and keep up God’s work, even in the face of certain persecution.

Although Riberi was the Catholic Church’s envoy to the Nationalists -- Mao’s enemies who had fled to Taiwan -- he refused to join the mass exit from Nanjing. He also resisted pressure to recognize the People’s Republic as a legitimate government. Instead, he actively opposed Communist plans to co-opt Chinese Catholics and create a religious organization controlled by Beijing. Facing a brick wall, sure to fail, Riberi fought on.

It may sound noble, yet Riberi’s stubborn determination was equally suicidal. It set the tone for the Catholic Church’s relations with Beijing over the next half a century: openly hostile and mutually suspicious, resulting in a countrywide ban of both the religion and its representatives.

The latest eruption came last week when Beijing consecrated two bishops of its own choosing, against the wishes of Pope Benedict XVI. The pontiff responded angrily, saying the two Chinese holy men would be excommunicated.


This new rift spoils recent progress between Rome and Beijing. Over the last year, the two had been inching closer, each promising cooperation and talking positively about efforts to finally establish diplomatic relations. But the appointments came as a slap in the pope’s face. Now that the goodwill has evaporated -- despite a conciliatory gesture by China on Monday to name a third bishop, this one already approved by the Vatican -- Pope Benedict’s hope of visiting China seems an ever more distant dream.

Beijing and the Vatican, like many antagonists, have some key traits in common. Both are intolerant of dissenting opinions. Both follow rigid orthodoxies, and both are control freaks. It’s tempting to suggest that they deserve each other.

Their tortured relationship started off on the wrong foot, then deteriorated. The Vatican was a strong supporter of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, a practicing Christian. Like the United States, the Vatican was unable to accept the possibility of a Communist victory in China, so when it actually happened, Rome lived in denial, stubbornly insisting that Taiwan was the true government of the mainland.

Mao was deeply suspicious of Rome, and not just because he was an atheist and considered Catholic teachings of guilt and salvation ill-suited for China. The chairman saw Catholics as evil remnants of feudal society, allies of imperialist America and colluders with his Nationalist enemies. Most Catholic missionaries were forced to leave, and hundreds were jailed and beaten, as were Chinese priests. Riberi himself was expelled from the country in 1951.

Mao, just as Riberi had feared, did set up an organization called the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Assn. to supervise and monitor all Catholic activity. China’s Communist Party -- not the pope -- was declared the ruling religious authority, and ordained priests were ordered to renounce Rome’s jurisdiction. By the 1960s, Mao presided over a fanatical leftist movement that banned virtually all religious worship and imposed a communist orthodoxy, with himself as a god and his Little Red Book as gospel. Most Catholic churches were destroyed, though some were simply converted into schools or storage space.

After Mao’s death in 1976, more reasonable leaders allowed religion to seep back, albeit with strict limits. Churches reopened but operated under the watchful eye of the authorities. Chinese Catholics were told to worship in churches approved by the Patriotic Assn.

Yet many Catholics did not want to submit to those rules, and in the 1980s an underground church began to blossom, with meetings in private homes and secret chapels. Using dog-eared prayer books and hymnals from old missionary churches, underground gatherings remained carefully hidden. Sometimes discovered and broken up by the police, they nevertheless multiplied quickly, though no one knows their exact numbers. Today there are an estimated 4 million members of Beijing-approved Catholic churches and perhaps an additional 8 million to 10 million who worship underground. That’s a teardrop in the ocean of China’s overall population of 1.3 billion, but it’s growing.

The death of the famously anti-communist Pope John Paul II appeared to offer a window for possible change last year. Unofficial talks between Beijing and Rome yielded an informal agreement that only bishops approved by Benedict would be formally consecrated by Beijing. There was talk of establishing diplomatic ties before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.


Why China revoked that agreement last week is a secret known only to those at the center of the Communist Party, a black box of decision-making. For now, Beijing and Rome are back to the more familiar ground of mutual distrust.