Another ecclesiological point of view on Sino-Vatican relations
Cardinal John Tong of Hong Kong wrote an article "The future of the Sino-Vatican dialogue from an ecclesiological point of view" published Feb. 9 where he shared his opinions and vision regarding the normalization of China-Vatican relations. The cardinal's good intentions are indeed respectable, yet some of his suggestions are worthy of reconsideration.
I initially would like to discuss his points in relation to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), which is a major issue in the China-Vatican negotiations because of the state-aligned body's controversial role in the China church. From the cardinal's point of view, a possible way forward is for China to recognize the pope's right to appoint bishops and end the policy allowing the open church community the right of "self-nomination and self-ordination." Once these steps are realized, the abolition of the CCPA would not be necessary; rather, the institution can continue to function if it solely provides charitable services. However, the cardinal may have overlooked the undesirable consequences such an optimistic proposition might incur.
Firstly, Since the Communist Party of China is de facto asserting control over the assets and administration of the open church community by interfering with officials' appointment in CCPA, the faithful have long been dissatisfied with such an uncanonical infrastructure. The continuous existence of the CCPA would not bring reconciliation between the open and underground church communities. Rather, the internal split would continue amid skepticism and distrust of the CCPA. There is no sign that the Communist Party would give up its substantial control of the church via the CCPA, even if the pope's formal right of appointing bishops is resumed.
My second point is that the CCPA per se is a product of the Communist Party's religious policy of "independent, autonomous and self-run church," which serves to control the operation and development of the China church. Recognizing the existence of CCPA would be translated as the Vatican's partial endorsement of such a policy.
Moreover, the strong patriotic character of CCPA is incompatible with the church's spirit of universality. Theologically speaking, the Catholic Church is, according to the document Lumen Gentium, Vatican Council II´s "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the "universal sacrament of salvation." It serves the whole of humanity. Facing the rise of unhealthy nationalism, and social exclusion against ethnic and religious minorities in the world today, the Catholic Church should not endorse any ecclesial associations with nationalistic or patriotic character.
Thirdly, endorsing CCPA's existence would give an excuse to the Communist Party and its satellite groups to advocate the expansion of CCPAs to Hong Kong and Macau, the special administrative regions under the rule of China. It carries a high possibility since the Communist Party has been practicing a political strategy of penetration, or what the opposition parties in Hong Kong blamed as "mainlandization" over the past decades. The Party establishment has attributed the unceasing resistance of Hong Kongers to the incomplete "turnover of people's heart" to China.
To turn this around, formal and informal patriotic education has been promoted, and various pro-Beijing groups have been formed to count Hong Kong's democratic movement, in which the Christians in the city are actively engaged in. The autonomy of Catholic Church in Hong Kong would be at risk if CCPA is legitimized and expanded.
The Mission of the Catholic Church
In his article, Cardinal Tong also declared that the church has no political aspiration but desire of "living and witnessing her belief" in China. Evangelization is undoubtedly the fundamental mission of the Catholic Church. In the medieval times, the mission of the church was merely eschatological: to evangelize and baptize people in order to enter heaven.
However, such a concept has been enriched and made holistic since the Second Vatican Council of 1964. In the synodic document Justitia in Mundo (Justice in the World, 1971), it stated the mission of evangelization as follows:
"[The mission of preaching the Gospel message] contains a call to people to turn away from sin to the love of the Father, universal kinship and a consequent demand for justice in the world. This is the reason why the church has the right, indeed the duty, to proclaim justice on the social, national and international level, and to denounce instances of injustice, when the fundamental rights of people and their very salvation demand it." (para. 36-37)
The declaration above clearly demands that the Catholic Church engage in social and political affairs outside the establishment as her duty of evangelization. Such duty reflects the church's pastoral aspiration. The Catholic Church in Poland and Brazil during the Cold War, and that in South Korea, the Philippines, El Salvador today, totally fulfilled such expectation by her roles in the civil society and nonviolent resistance.
If so, facing severe political and economic injustice in China, should the Catholic Church pursue her rights of "living and witnessing her belief in China" at the expense of fulfilling the mission against injustice in the territory? Should our church remain silent in the midst of government suppression over the Christian churches and manipulations of other religious institutions by party penetration? In other words, the absence of prophetic participation in society significantly undermines a full evangelization of Catholic Church today.
Essential or handicapped freedom?
At the end of his article, Cardinal Tong proposed a "lesser-of-two-evils" strategy that strives for the freedom for the Holy See to appoint bishops despite the fact that the church's freedom to carry out various activities are still much constrained, such as the ways of spreading the faith, founding schools and recovering properties.
On the surface, his strategic choice can be understood with sympathy. However, the evil is always in the details. In previous sources leaked by the media, an agreement on the mechanism of appointing bishops between China and Vatican was proposed. While the pope could have final approval of episcopal candidates, the Chinese government can filter candidates at the initial stage. If so, it would inevitably contradict with the instruction of a Vatican II decree:
"[T]he right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and per se exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority. Therefore, for the purpose of duly protecting the freedom of the church and of promoting more conveniently and efficiently the welfare of the faithful, this holy council desires that in future no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be granted to civil authorities." (Christus Dominus, para. 20)
In other words, if the above leaked proposal is true, the Communist Party could remain a certain extent of power over the selection, and thus the freedom for the Holy See to appoint bishops would be conditional. If the "essential" freedom is still conditional, can such freedom be true and guaranteed? Can it be said that the Catholic traditions will be recovered?
The process of recovering diplomatic relationship between China and Vatican will be long. But any diplomatic resolutions should not be dealt at the expense of autonomy of the Catholic Church, under the conventional principle of "separation between Church and State." The conditioned right of appointing bishops by the pope and formal recognition of CCPA's existence are incompatible with the principles and values of the Catholic Church.
It is sincerely hoped that the leaders of Catholic Church review their understanding and approach to the political reality of China, and seek a resolutions that safeguard the essence of the church.