Dialogue dilemma: Vatican's China overture sparks controversy

IMAGE: CNS photo/Roman Pilipey, EPA

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Vatican efforts to honor those who suffer and die for their
faith while trying to negotiate with oppressive regimes to expand religious
freedom have been fraught
with criticism and real pain for more than 50 years.

For example, whether Vatican diplomatic efforts
during the Cold War helped ensure the survival of the Catholic Church behind
the Iron Curtain or amounted to appeasing evil is still a subject of scholarly

But, unfortunately, the topic is not just a matter of

A similar tension is being played out in China, where the
Vatican is engaged in dialogue with the communist government in an attempt to
move, however slowly, toward a situation in which all the Catholic bishops
would be in full communion with Rome and all Catholics would recognize each
other as members of the same church.

But some people who have given up their freedom to remain
faithful to the pope and some who have observed the resulting suffering see
the Vatican’s dialogue with the Chinese government as a betrayal.

One of the loudest critics of the Vatican’s current
engagement with the Chinese government is Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired archbishop of Hong

In a blog posted on his Facebook page Jan. 29, he asked
rhetorically, “Is it not good to try to find mutual ground to bridge the
decades-long divide between the Vatican and China?” And then he responded,
“But can there be anything really ‘mutual’ with a totalitarian regime?
Either you surrender or you accept persecution, but remaining faithful to yourself.”

While Cardinal Zen acknowledged that some Catholics who have
cooperated with the government-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association did so “not
by their own free will, but under heavy pressure,” he also said others are
“willing renegades” who, in effect, are in schism.

For decades, the communist government has insisted on naming
bishops for Chinese dioceses; for the Catholic Church, that is the prerogative
of the pope, since unity with the pope is the guarantee of unity with the

But the Vatican’s current policy not only involves dialogue
with the Chinese government to find agreement on the appointment of bishops and
pry open even some tiny space for religious freedom, it also is focused on
healing relations among Chinese Catholics.

The importance of uniting Chinese Catholics was explained by
now-retired Pope Benedict XVI in his 2007 letter to Catholics in China.

The division created by cooperating or refusing to cooperate
with the patriotic association, Pope Benedict wrote, “is a situation
primarily dependent on factors external to the church, but it has seriously
conditioned her progress, giving rise also to suspicions, mutual accusations
and recriminations, and it continues to be a weakness in the church that causes

It is in building a “communion of love that the church
appears as ‘sacrament,’ as the ‘sign and instrument of intimate union with God
and of the unity of the human race,'” Pope Benedict wrote. “Avoiding
judgments and mutual condemnations” is the only way to promote unity in a
situation where individuals, particularly bishops, must decide the extent to
which they can cooperate with the government for the good of their communities.

Criticism of the Vatican’s Cold War outreach to Soviet-bloc
nations was focused on Cardinal
Agostino Casaroli, seen as the project’s chief architect. A full-time
Vatican diplomat for decades, he served as Vatican secretary of state from 1979 to 1990.

In a similar way, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the current
secretary of state, is at the center of discussion over the current attempt to
dialogue with the Chinese government.

In his Jan. 29 Facebook post, Cardinal Zen seemed to imply
that Pope Francis was not fully informed of Cardinal Parolin’s activities and
approach. The Vatican press office swiftly issued a denial.

Cardinal Parolin himself responded in an interview published
Jan. 31 with the Italian newspaper La Stampa and its Vatican Insider website.

“In China, perhaps more than elsewhere, Catholics have
been able to preserve, despite many difficulties and sufferings, the authentic
deposit of faith, keeping firmly the bond of hierarchical communion between the
bishops and the successor of Peter as a visible guarantee of faith itself,”
the cardinal said. “In fact, communion between the bishop of Rome and all
Catholic bishops touches the heart of the church’s unity: It is not a private
matter between the pope and the Chinese bishops or between the Apostolic See
and civil authorities.”

But in China, he said, the unity of the church also is
threatened by judgments Chinese Catholics make about each other based on the
level of their acceptance of government involvement in the life of the community.

Cardinal Parolin said the Vatican wants to overcome the
“perennial conflict between opposing principles and structures” by
“finding realistic pastoral solutions that allow Catholics to live their
faith and to continue together the work of evangelization in the specific
Chinese context.”

“The hope is that, when God wills it, we won’t have to
speak of ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ bishops, ‘clandestine’ and ‘official’
bishops in the church in China,” he said, but the focus will be on all
Chinese Catholics “learning the language of collaboration and communion

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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