An abrupt halt to rapprochement between two giant slices of humanity
ONLY a year ago, a great diplomatic breakthrough—the exchange of ambassadors between the world’s largest church and the world’s most populous country—seemed to be in the offing. Now the mood between China and the Holy See is as bad as it has been for half a century.
On July 14th China’s state-backed Catholic hierarchy, which the Vatican does not recognise, held a three-hour ceremony to consecrate a bishop in the city of Shantou. This was the third time in eight months that a hierarch had been elevated in defiance of the pope. What gave the latest rite a nasty taste was the reported abduction by police of four Rome-aligned bishops who were then pressed to take part in the ceremony. One dissident bishop was “seen sobbing as he was dragged” from home, according to AsiaNews, a Vatican-linked news service.
Chinese Catholics, who may number up to 12m, are split between adherents of a state-run church and those loyal to the Holy See. The big dispute is over who can name bishops. Recently, a grey area between the camps had emerged, with many prelates recognised by both sides. In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI offered an olive branch by recognising the legitimacy of the Chinese state and stopping the unilateral naming of bishops.
But the Vatican has reacted to this summer’s events by declaring that the new bishop and another promoted in similar circumstances in June were ipso facto excommunicated. China’s religious-affairs agency called the Vatican’s move “unreasonable and rude” given the “ardent Catholic faith” of the new bishops.
To some people in, or close to, the Vatican, the mess will confirm reservations they already had about rushing into formal ties with China. George Weigel, an influential American Catholic, wants the pope to keep pressing for religious liberty, including the right to name bishops, before exchanging envoys with Beijing. In his view, cutting ties with democratic Taiwan could pose “grave questions” about the church’s stance on human rights. Among Vatican diplomats, too, there are hawks and doves on the China issue. What the church lacks, says Marco Ventura, an Italian writer on religion, is the strategic vision that guided its diplomacy in the cold war.