Skirmishing between the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party reached strident tones this week after Pope Benedict expressed his hope that the Christmas holiday would "strengthen the spirit of faith, patience and courage of the faithful of the Church in mainland China that they may not lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience."
Global Times , effectively the English counterpart of the official Communist Party People's Daily fired back "The pontiff sounded more like a western politician than a religious leader . . . before the pope attacks China’s internal affairs, he may want to rethink the Vatican’s so-called role as a protector of religious freedom."
China's Religious Revival
When the Chinese Communist Party discredited itself ideologically as a result of the Popular Revolution (1966-9), the denunciations of the "Gang of Four" (1978) and the reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s, an anomalous situation was created. On the one hand, as opposed to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the Communist Party had no inclination to weaken its monopoly on of power, but on the other hand it could no longer offer a credible ideology.
Religion in popular and established forms revived and skyrocketed. Christmas became an unofficial holiday with stores festooned with decorations. The new craze prompted people to wear crosses, join Bible classes and attend churches on Sunday. For the regime, the dividing line was between individual belief that was tolerated versus organized religion that could pose a threat to political hegemony. The latter had to be under control.
In 1999 the party cracked down on the Fal un Gong organization because it believed that it was acquiring too much influence. In response Falun Gong membersand supporters have staged worldwide demonstrations since then protesting the repression. This week there was a demonstration in Tel Aviv.
Falun Gong has been tarred by the regime as a cult with the pejorative connotations that the term carries. Christianity is not susceptible to this tactic. When the Communists took power in 1949 they regarded the church as an enemy and the spearhead of Western imperialism in China during the 19th century. Church property was expropriated and what remained of Christianity was under tight government control. A Patriotic Catholic church was permitted to operate, but it did not recognize the pope. An underground Catholic Church also survived and with the weakening of communist ideology even began to prosper. The Vatican is one of the few countries that has not yet established formal ties with Beijing.
Back to Bonaparte
Ironically the current Pope attempted to establish a modus vivendi with Beijing. In a sense the Vatican was unofficially going back to a policy of concordat or agreement that is first instituted with Napoleon Bonaparte and had then repeated with Mussolini and Hitler. The most important rule was that the Vatican and the regime would jointly agree on senior church prelates.
In 2007 Benedict tried to close the rift between the state-supported patriotic Catholics and the clandestine Catholics in China The pope wrote that there was only one Church, and that most of the state "patriotic" bishops respected Rome. He urged these bishops to make this relationship public. Simultaneously he urged underground bishops to find a way to get government certification so they would no longer have to remain secret leaders.
Benedict also claimed in a letter that Catholicism could prosper under different political regimes - a hint that the Communist Party did not have to fear the church as a subversive force that would undermine its political hegemony. Despite the improved relations, the Chinese Communists who blame the Vatican for the fall of the Soviet bloc, remained unconvinced.
Last month, the party railroaded the ordination of a Bishop in the state-controlled Patriotic Association without getting Vatican approval. Then it coerced a Bishop recognized by the Vatican to lead the Association. The Vatican was incensed and praised those who had resisted participation and showed sympathy for those who had been coerced into a grave violation of their human rights, particularly their freedom of religion and of conscience..
Global Times, in its reply to the Pope, rehashed the entire difficult history:of recent years. "The Vatican has tried several times to interfere with the Catholic conferences held in China, and has even threatened to punish participating priests. Its stubborn entanglements with politics do not seem to fade away with time - 60 years ago when the People's Republic of China was founded, the Vatican tried to order Chinese Catholic churches to refuse cooperation." The unofficial concordat had collapsed
It is not clear why the Chinese chose to precipitate a confrontation with the Vatican. Perhaps they view the Catholic Church the way they do the United States - as a force in decline that no longer deserves deference. It was Stalin who reportedly raised the derisive question: how many divisions does the Pope have? Given China's growing economic and military strength, it may feel empowered to raise that question anew.