07 February 2018

China, the Vatican and the Open Church

Catholic Church in Luoyang’s Old City

Those of you who follow my blog with regularity will probably be expecting me to comment on the recent controversial move by the Vatican to make a deal with the People’s Republic of China over the appointment of bishops, which has been a long-standing (and, in the general philosophical sense, I do mean long-standing) point of contention between the Catholic Church and the Chinese government. In addition, retired Bishop Joseph (Zen) of Hong Kong has lashed out at the Curia over the recent agreement; and Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo has weighed in with some unfortunately one-sided remarks about the Chinese government’s de facto implementation of Catholic social teaching.

There’s quite a lot for me to comment on here, that’s true. But first I should probably lay my personal cards on the table. When I was still Anglican, my daughter Eleanore was baptised in the ‘open’ church (that is to say, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association), the organ of Catholicism in China that is officially recognised by – and, to some extent, controlled by – the government. She was received into Orthodoxy by chrismation after arriving here in the US in 2016. I had done some research prior to that, both on the general situation of both the ‘open’ and the ‘underground’ church, and on the local diocæse. I’d also talked with several Catholics ‘in the know’ about the situation of the clergy and the sacraments in China before making that decision. As part of the ‘tacit accord’ piloted by Pope Benedict XVI, most ‘open’ church priests have received blessings both from an ‘open’ church bishop and from a Vatican-recognised bishop, and thus have valid orders which are recognised both by the Vatican and by the ‘underground’ church. Also, I have done some study on the places of overlap between certain elements of mainland Chinese political theory and practice, and Catholic social teaching. There is a substantive argument to be made there.

So, all that having been said. I give Bishop-Emeritus Joseph two cheers – not a full three – for his stance on the appointment of bishops. The ‘tacit accord’ approach, for all its (from a Catholic view) philosophical flaws, was at least a modus vivendi, and it’s a modus vivendi that could possibly work as well if not better for the Orthodox Church, provided Vladyka Kirill’s ouvertures to the Chinese government for legal recognition bear fruit. Here it behoves Orthodox Christians to listen very carefully to what Cardinal Joseph is saying; I, for one, am watching how the Vatican and the Chinese government come to an agreement here, as – regardless of how it turns out – the ramifications for any Orthodox mission in China will be deep and lasting. The Chinese government will walk away from any deal made with the Vatican with a certain set of expectations which it will then apply to any possible agreement with the Orthodox Church for legal recognition. And – both for current Chinese believers and for future ones – those expectations will have immediate real-life consequences.

Bishop-Emeritus Joseph’s insistence on separating – on an intellectual level – the Chinese government, from the Patriotic Catholic Association leadership, from the people in the ‘open’ church is actually profoundly necessary to any cogent understanding of the situation of the Church in China, and – God willing that day comes swiftly – his approach will be vital and needed when it comes to the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Chinese state. Why? Because the separation of nation-as-narod from nation-as-natsiya is a hallmark of Orthodox social teaching, which overly-critical Latins (and too many credulous Orthodox, unfortunately) often misinterpret as a kind of ethno-nationalism in the modern sense. Let me just say, then, that on the question of the CPCA, the Vatican would be well-advised to listen to Bishop Joseph, and to act accordingly.

That said, though: Bishop Joseph’s insistence that the government itself simply cannot be reasoned with is, to put it bluntly, wrong; hence, two cheers instead of three. If the government of the People’s Republic of China couldn’t be reasoned with, the changes that have occurred both within that government and at the grassroots over the past four decades, that allow Catholics to practice even at the limited level they currently have, simply could not have happened. Time frames do not advance as quickly in official circles, and the government has a vested interest in maintaining the illusion of continuity even if that continuity comes at a certain price. That’s also something for the Curia to understand.

Now, regarding Bishop Marcelo. However much ‘conservative’ American Catholics may hate it, he does have several good points to make. Neoliberalism is incompatible with Catholic social teaching; American-style atomistic individualism is incompatible with Catholic social teaching; ideological opposition to climate science is incompatible with Catholic social teaching. All three points hold true equally for Orthodox social teaching.

But, sadly – because I agree with the basic point – there’s no other way to describe Bishop Marcelo’s positive comments about China than ‘naïve’. We can have a decent conversation about mainland China’s getihu small business culture; about the successes of the PSBC in bringing credit to rural areas; about the working-class origins and radical potentials of the hanfu subculture; about the slow food villages; about the traditionalist potentials of ‘red memory’; about the tenacity of traditional gender rôles and natalism even under an official culture that has tried to stifle both. We could also talk about the efforts of people like Kang Xiaoguang and Thomas Han Hong-Soon to find conceptual spaces where China’s native intellectual traditions can be actively informed by the partial implementation of Catholic social teaching in Europe.

But even in listing the above you begin to notice a troubling pattern. Many (but not all) of these really interesting developments in mainland China, the ones that have the strongest consonance with Catholic (and Orthodox) values, have happened alongside or even in spite of government policy – with the PSBC, the state sponsorship of slow food and the repeal of the one-child policy being the noteworthy and laudable exceptions. I say I have ‘one foot in the big red circle’, and that for good reason, but it’s still only one foot: ‘official’ ideological discussions are still hidebound in the language of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, and all the interesting discussions are happening among the (more-)independent intelligentsia and at the grassroots. To be sure, some intriguing and potentially-humanising projects are also happening at higher levels. But these are also the ones that I tend to look at with a bit more scepticism.

Bishop Marcelo unfortunately relies on nods to China’s drug policy and housing policies (with which, by the way, there are a number of outstanding problems), and a stereotypical portrayal of China’s work ethic and sober living that made me wince a bit. That’s not to say Bishop Marcelo’s argument can’t be made; it’s just that he didn’t make it very well.

More Jimmy Yen there, please, and less Jiang Zemin.


  1. I like your nuanced consideration of the issue.

    My right-wing instincts make me uncomfortable with the idea of a Vatican deal and I don't think it can be done in a way that isn't messy. But the Catholic Church has done these kinds of deals before and it has one today with Belarus.

    China is not Poland; the Catholic Church is not going to be a force of mass opposition against the Chinese regime. And even Pope St. John Paul II was willing to work with the Communist establishments in Eastern Europe, despite his stance in Poland. He would be talking to the Chinese government if he were alive today.

  2. Hi Matthew!

    Glad you approve! To be clear, as a rule I'm not a big fan of these high-profile 'deals', either - and not just with China.

    In the case of the Orthodox Church, such a deal seems a grim necessity; we have yet to achieve the status of legal recognition in the PRC, which - believe it or not - puts our level of religious freedom in the PRC actually below the level we have in North Korea.

    And it's probably a growing necessity for the Vatican as well, but I do think they should think long and hard before making this agreement without consulting folks 'on the ground'. Including (but not limited to!) Bishop Joseph. I know some other Chinese Catholic priests and bishops are much more enthusiastic about the deal, such as the current Cardinal John Tong of HK.

    I'll have to read a bit more about the Catholic arrangement with the government of Belarus. That may also be quite an instructive case!


    1. Not an expert on the situation in Belarus, but I believe appointments of bishops have to be approved by the government.