September 1, 2006


Diplomatic Relations with China? Maybe, but on One Condition: The point that the Holy See maintains is non-negotiable is complete freedom of the appointment and activity of the bishops. “No agreement at all is better than a bad agreement,” says cardinal Zen’s trusted expert. “And the Catholics of Taiwan should know that Rome will not abandon them” (Sandro Magister, September 1, 2006, Chiesa)

Q: But do you think the Chinese authorities want this dialogue?

A: It seems to me that the present leadership of the party and the government has not yet positively confronted the issue of religious freedom in general, and of relations with the Holy See in particular. For some time the most attentive observers have been pointing out not merely a lack of progress in the field of human rights, but even a setback. The political and civil reforms wished for and heralded in the 1990’s seem never to arrive. Meanwhile, the regime is getting stronger: control and repression are more narrowly aimed and sophisticated, but effective all the same.

Q: You have such a dim view of the situation?

A: The leader of China is Hu Jintao, the director responsible for the bloody repression in Tibet in March of 1989. This leader certainly does not lift hopes for religious freedom, civil liberty, and respect for human rights. Incredibly, with the Olympics two years away, there are still bishops and priests whose status is unknown, or who are in prison, or confined. When will they be set free? [...]

Q: One reads that the Holy See would be willing to abandon Taiwan, just to resolve its longstanding disagreement with Beijing.

A: But I ask myself whether it is right for the Holy See, after being present for 55 years, to leave Taiwan like almost all the other governments have done. Why treat Taiwan as an “historical remnant,” as a sort of traffic accident to be shaken off? Of course, Taiwan is small, and China is big: but is this argument really valid? In Taiwan, the Church is free and at peace. There is an air of freedom and pluralism there. Taiwan is the first democracy in the history of the Chinese nation, and many are seeking to denigrate this historical civil achievement. Having lived in Taiwan for a few years certainly disposes me favorably toward that population. But there is little sympathy for Taiwan in the world: few seem to be interested in respecting the opinion of its citizens, in understanding its history, which also includes suffering and massacres. It is not right to consider Taiwan as simply a pawn on the great Chinese chessboard.

Q: So you don’t see any way out?

A: In realty, the Chinese regime could arrive at agreements with the Holy See precisely with the aim of further isolating Taiwan. The question of Taiwan, in fact, is a real priority for the Chinese government. I believe that the Holy See will face the question of Taiwan with a sense of responsibility, and not in terms of political opportunism, as other governments do. The inhabitants of Taiwan, both Catholic and non-Catholic, should not for one moment feel that the Church has abandoned them. So prelates should avoid expressions such as “the willingness to transfer the nunciature immediately to Beijing” or “the sad necessity of abandoning Taiwan.” In such a delicate and sensitive matter, even language is important. Of course, for the Holy See’s part, there won’t be any changes in relations with the Catholics of Taiwan. And, I believe, the Holy See will keep alive its human, cultural, religious, and social contacts with the people and authorities of Taiwan. At the end of the day, it is up to Taipei and Beijing to find solutions for their disagreements.

Q: Let’s return to the central issue: freedom for the Church.

A: This is the fundamental question, and it remains unresolved. Authoritative Church representatives, including cardinal Zen, have recently restated with even greater clarity that the real obstacle with China is the lack of religious freedom. On this point, the Holy See does not at all seem disposed to concessions or compromises that would undermine the prerogatives of the Church itself.

Q: But will some agreement be reached, or not?

A: My colleagues at the “Holy Spirit Study Centre” in Hong Kong, who understand the Church in China as few others do, strongly share the following conviction: no agreement at all is better than a bad agreement. In my view, the real progress of the Church in China, the progress on the ground, together with the progress of evangelization, comes from the freedom and unity of the bishops more than from the guarantees of formal diplomatic relations. So the priority is the bishops themselves, insofar as they are essential to the life of the Church.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 1, 2006 8:33 AM
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