I seems inevitable that the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See will eventually establish formal diplomatic relations. Whether this takes months or years, both China and the Vatican have reached an understanding of their mutual interests. China, for its part, seems intent on resolving both its “underground” Catholic Church problem and the Tibet/Dalai Lama issue before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which will be the occasion for a worldwide view of the new China. Entry into the World Trade Organization and commercial ambitions in general have driven this development.
Both Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, have strongly stated the church’s desire to normalize relations with the largest country on earth. Tangible gestures by both sides indicate the increased pace of reconciliation. Cardinal Godfried Daneels of Belgium and Cardinals Theodore McCarrick and Roger Mahony of the United States visited China in recent months and were received by China’s Foreign Ministry and by Ye Xiaowen, head of the State Bureau for Administration of Religious Affairs, which manages church activities. In a breakthrough meeting last October, Cardinal McCarrick spoke with Jia Quingling, the fourth highest official in the Chinese hierarchy. New bishops have been installed in Shanghai and Xian with the public approval of both the Chinese government and Rome, as have at least three auxiliary bishops.
What will all this mean for China and for the church? The prevailing wisdom has been that the major impact would be on China. The Vatican would recognize Taiwan as part of China, the “underground” church would be reconciled with the official church, and Rome would formally have influence over the appointment of Chinese bishops. Many believe these issues have largely been settled already, as Betty Ann Maheu (Am., 11/7/05) has suggested. Archbishop Claudio Marie Celli, on the other hand, who oversaw the Holy See’s China policy, has said an agreement will depend on its beneficial effects for the Chinese church.
Less attention has been given to the impact rapprochement with China might have on the universal church. It is possible that the Holy Spirit, in the mystery of divine providence, is using developments in China to guide the church into the future. Four areas are particularly salient.
One is the notion of collaboration, espoused by the Second Vatican Council. In recent decades a trend toward centralization of decision-making in Rome has been apparent. Because of the constitutional role of the government in church affairs in China, the Vatican will necessarily be in a position of sharing decision-making power with local bishops through secular authorities. The actual extent of this might be minimal. Nonetheless, collaboration in some form will be required through the Bureau for Administration of Religious Affairs. That could have implications throughout the universal church, depending on the model of power-sharing that develops.
A second area involves the ordination of bishops. For years the Chinese government has insisted on appointing the bishops without interference from Rome. This has been a well-known problem both politically and doctrinally because of the importance of apostolic succession. If the two sides have reached a mutually acceptable accommodation, this obstacle to reconciliation will have been substantially resolved. But a little-recognized aspect of the issue could have significant implications for the universal church: Under current regulations, the appointment process for bishops in China includes a local election. Typically, the local authority nominates two men. The local clergy and lay leaders, including religious women, then vote. The top vote-getter is then named bishop. (In recent elections, though, the sitting bishop has made known the candidate who has received prior approval from Rome.) A key element in the process is that the winner must receive approval from 50 percent of the eligible voters. In effect, the local church has a veto over episcopal appointments. While the process can, of course, be easily manipulated by pressure from the authority, its mere existence could provoke interesting dialogue in the universal church about the appointment of bishops worldwide. While this process might be modified in a diplomatic relations agreement, its similarity to the role of the local church in the early days of Christianity is noteworthy.
A third intriguing aspect of developments in China concerns evangelization and the missionary call of the church. In part because of its historical experience with foreign missionaries, China’s religious affairs regulations prohibit evangelization by foreigners while allowing it from within. This is not likely to change in a diplomatic relations agreement. The effect is that the old model of church—sending external missionaries from outside—could develop into a new model in which the church encourages and supports the internal missionary call of the local faithful.
During a recent conference in Chengdu I visited the local cathedral. With me was a young university graduate student, a nonbeliever. Among the many people praying in the cathedral was an elderly Chinese woman who was intoning novena prayers. After I asked her questions about the local diocese, she began speaking to my Chinese colleague, and I witnessed proselytizing taking place according to this new model. The woman gave my colleague prayer cards and invited her to Sunday Mass. Under Chinese regulations, that elderly woman is permitted to be the missionary. The foreigner may be present but may not be the missionary. Similarly, last month in Beijing a university professor gave me a leather-bound Chinese/English Bible. While I am not permitted to give out Bibles in China, my Chinese friends are. In fact, the professor told me that he regularly gives Bibles as gifts to his nonbelieving friends. This paradigm of “missionary” could well advance understanding of the evangelizing role of the faithful in the local church.
Finally, the church in China may well provide the universal church with a refreshing role model of orthodoxy and devotion. In my 23 years’ experience with Catholic communities in China, I have seen a fervor of faith and devotion that perdures and is truly edifying. The malaise of faith and devotion that we now often experience in the Western church could well be tempered by our faithful brothers and sisters in China.
That the church in China might have a providential role in the future of the universal church should not be surprising given its remarkable history. While not widely known in the West, for example, Jesuit missionaries arrived in China well before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. Most notable were Mateo Ricci, Adam Schall and Ferdinand Verbiest, who mastered Mandarin and Chinese culture. Through their expertise they gained access and acceptance in the power circles of 16th- and 17th-century China and became esteemed advisors in the emperor’s court. While teaching science and technology to their Chinese colleagues, they adapted Christianity to Chinese culture in the way the Second Vatican Council would encourage centuries later. They offered Mass in the vernacular, wore vestments like Chinese shamans and preached the Gospel using Confucian concepts. They appeared to be on the verge of converting the elite when Rome ordered a halt to their Chinese-style Catholicism. Arguably, China might have become a Christian nation then through a monarchical process similar to the experience of European nations. Ricci died a national sage and was buried in Beijing. During the cultural revolution of the 1960’s, when anything Western was desecrated, Ricci’s grave was protected. It is an irony and paradox that his tomb is located in what is now the Beijing Communist Party training academy campus. He is honored in Chinese history books as Li Mateu, the Chinese name he adopted.
A similar paradoxical event in China occurred in the 1990’s. Mother Teresa believed, from the time she founded her Missionaries of Charity, that China had a special role to play in the universal church. She dreamed of working there. Because of my access as a professor and corporate emissary, I became involved. Part of that effort resulted in her visit to Shanghai in 1993, where she prayed with the Bishop of Shanghai at the Basilica of Our Lady of Sheshan and spoke to the several hundred seminarians of the diocese. Sheshan is a hilltop outside of Shanghai and is itself a citadel of paradox. In the latter part of the 19th century, Jesuits built an astronomical observatory on Sheshan to look at the heavens through the eyes of science. Adjacent to it they built the basilica, dedicated to Christ’s mother, for looking at the heavens through the eyes of faith. Today, nonbelieving Chinese come on pilgrimages to the observatory, which is now a museum. Christian Chinese travel there from all parts of China to honor Mary much as Western Christian pilgrims come to Lourdes. Mother Teresa was thrilled to be there. Until the day she died, she carried with her a small statue of Our Lady of Sheshan given to her by Shanghai’s bishop, Aloysius Jin Luxian.
The role of business, economics and commerce has been critical in these developments. Christians tend to forget that the flow of commerce was key to the flow of grace that converted pagan Rome. When merchants embraced Christianity, they became the “missionaries” whose work contributed to the conversion of Constantine and the rise of the Roman Catholic Church. A similar phenomenon has been central to the unfolding of the church in China. Western corporations and the Internet are replete with Judeo-Christian perspectives and values. Money does talk; and some of that talk is homiletic in substance, subtle and flawed though it may be.
My own experience is illustrative. From the early 1980’s I lectured in management departments of Chinese universities. The first lectures, I was told, were being offered to help students understand Western culture, which conditions the thinking and practice of business in the United States. A senior Chinese professor suggested that I begin with explanations of American holidays. To my surprise, the students were fascinated with these American celebrations. “Tell us about Christmas and Easter,” they asked, and “What about Valentine’s Day?” As I responded I realized that many of our secular holidays have Christian origins. St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving, for example, capture the Chinese imagination. In the paradoxical disguise of business concepts and managerial interests—and well within the strict rules about proselytizing in China—Christianity was being propagated through explanations of saints and customs!
The paradox appeared even more sharply some years later, when at universities in Shanghai and Beijing I routinely assigned the Bible in business management courses to help students fathom the Western business mind. While operating within the rules of my host country, respecting Chinese sensitivities and serving the economic interests of China, I could—in the name of commerce—let the Gospel speak for itself.
Both past and present aspects of the church in China suggest a special role for the Catholic Church there. As reconciliation between Rome and Beijing looms, a new day of grace for the universal church may be dawning on the Chinese mainland. In divine wisdom, business and commerce, as well as the Jesuits and Mother Teresa, have been key factors in this phenomenon.