The signing of a provisional agreement between the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See was announced by the Press Office of the Holy See on September 22, 2018.
It is helpful to understand this agreement as a true harmony of notes. That is to say, the beginning of a composition that has yet to be developed. This is not, then, the conclusion of a process, but it is a real starting point that needs to be implemented through instruments of control and improvements to the text.
In what follows I shall try to bring into perspective the recent itinerary tied to the figure of Pope Francis, who has often expressed both his admiration for China and his desire to overcome obstacles to a solid and efficacious dialogue. We shall see how this desire has solid roots in the action of his predecessors; indeed, his commitment is a development of the premises laid down by preceding popes. I shall then look to assess the agreement, its logic and the stance that sustains it. Finally, I look at a series of positive challenges that the signing of this agreement relaunches.
Francis: the desire for China
The Alitalia flight that brought Pope Francis to Korea on his apostolic journey flew over China on August 14, 2014. It was the first time a pope had been allowed to enter Chinese airspace. In the telegram he sent to President Xi Jinping, Francis wrote: “Entering Chinese airspace, I extend my best greetings to Your Excellency and to the citizens, and invoke the blessings of divine peace and wellbeing on the nation.” In a historical interview with Francesco Sisci for Asia Times published February 2, 2016, the pope recalled that moment, stating: “When I flew over China for the first time, they said to me: ‘In 10 minutes we will enter Chinese airspace and we will send your greeting.’ I confess I felt quite emotional, something that does not happen often. I was moved by the idea of flying over so much culture and wisdom.”
During the return flight to Rome, Francis recalled his emotion at flying over China and sent a second telegram to the Chinese head of state: “I wish to renew to Your Excellency and to the citizens the assurance of my best wishes, and I invoke the divine blessing on your land.”
During the in-flight press conference, a few minutes later, Francis stated: “Do I want to go to China? Of course: tomorrow! Oh, yes. We respect the Chinese people; it is just that the Church seeks freedom for its mission, for its work; no other condition. We must not forget that fundamental document for the Chinese question: the Letter to the Chinese written by Pope Benedict XVI. That Letter is still timely today. It is good to reread it. The Holy See is always open to contacts: always, because it has genuine esteem for the Chinese people.”
The third time the pope flew over China was during his return trip from the Philippines, on January 18, 2015. On that occasion the pope wrote to the president, among other words, “I assure you of my prayer for you and for all the people of China, invoking on you an abundant blessing of harmony and prosperity.”
On many occasions the pope has made clear his desire for a diplomatic bridge with China, beyond this strongly symbolic “aerial bridge.” He has expressed both his desire to go to China and his desire to reestablish friendly relations. Returning from the United States on September 27, 2015, he said: “China is a great nation which offers the world a great culture and so many good things. I once said as we were flying over China, returning from Korea, that I would very much like to go to China. I love the Chinese people, I wish them well, and I hope for a possibility of good relations. We do have contacts, we talk, we are moving forward, but for me, having as a friend a country like China, which has a great culture and such opportunity to do good, would be a joy.”
The roots of the Jesuit pope’s interest in China emerged in his interview with Professor Sisci: “For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with unending wisdom. As a boy, whatever I read about China would fill me with admiration. I admired China. Later, I studied the life of Matteo Ricci and I say that he felt the same thing I felt: admiration. I understood how he was able to dialogue with this great culture and its ancient wisdom. He was able to meet it.”
An important element of the journey to Myanmar and Bangladesh in December 2017 was the fact that the pope was the first to consider explicitly the new role that China wants to have – and already has – in the international context. This is a fact that Francis himself summarized during the press conference returning to Rome from Dhaka with these words: “Beijing has a great influence in the region, this is natural: I don’t know how many kilometers of border Myanmar has there: even in the Masses there were Chinese people who had come. I think that these countries that surround China, also Laos, Cambodia, need good relations; they are neighbors. And I find this wise, politically constructive if they want to move forward. However, it’s true that China today is a world power: if we look at it from this side, it can change the panorama.” Besides, we know all too well that we cannot think about peace in the world without considering the role played by China. In our age, with our commercial wars and inflamed souls, this reflection attains even greater value.
It is important to note how the journey to Myanmar and Bangladesh was followed attentively by China. The press in the People’s Republic wrote about it, particularly The Global Times, the English-language tabloid produced by the People’s Daily. We remember too that The Global Times recently dedicated many articles to the pope, and unexpectedly published a large photograph of Francis on its front page on February 18, 2017.
On this occasion, too, the pope mentioned his desire to journey there one day: “I would really like to visit China. It is no secret. Negotiations with China are of a high cultural level.” Again during the flight from Dhaka to Rome he added something about the political dialogue: “It must be done one step at a time, with sensitivity, as is being done. Slowly.” And he concluded: “But the doors of the heart are open. And I think this will be good for everyone, a journey to China. I would like to do that.”
Speaking of China, Francis has used an interesting expression: seeing things from one side can change the perception of the panorama. And he spoke of “politically constructive” international relations. We should not lose sight of the meaning of these words, which are the key to Bergoglio’s “diplomacy of mercy.”
The complex relations between China and the Holy See
The history of relations between the Catholic Church and China is very complex. We recall that Christianity arrived in China for the first time over 1,000 years ago. It did not last long. Alopen, the Syriac monk, introduced Nestorian Christianity in the seventh century during the Tang dynasty and established several monasteries and churches. Nestorianism reappeared during the Mongol period in the 13th century but went into crisis in China during the first part of the 14th century. Franciscan Bishop Giovanni da Montecorvino began his evangelizing mission among the Mongols in Beijing, a mission that ceased after the end of the Yuan Mongol dynasty in 1368.
The first Jesuit missionaries arrived in 1582 during the Ming dynasty. Matteo Ricci and his companions were at work up until the beginning of the Qing dynasty (1644), before the rites controversy led to the Chinese emperor banishing Christianity for a hundred years. During that period Catholics were held in high esteem socially and were looked on with great respect by most of Chinese society, including government officials, members of the royal family and scholars. The number of Catholics grew.
If we move forward directly to the modern period, we should recall that after the first opium war (1839-1842) when the Chinese empire was weak and the Western powers were asserting themselves with “unequal treaties,” the French protectorate was established over the Catholic Church’s missions, both for foreign Catholics and indigenous ones. The links between Catholics and France reinforced the idea that Christianity was a foreign religion and brought xenophobic hatred against Christians. This would explode tragically with the Boxer Rebellion in 1900-1901 when about 30,000 Catholics were slaughtered. In 1860, after the second opium war, the Treaty of Nanjing conceded greater possibilities to Christian missions and the Jesuits entered China for the second time.
In 1912 the empire came to an end and the Chinese Republic began. In 1922 Pius XI nominated and sent Celso Costantini as first apostolic delegate to China and celebrated the Council of Shanghai in 1924, preparing the first ordinations of six Chinese bishops, which would take place in Rome in 1926. With Pius XII in 1946, during the first consistory after the world war, the first Chinese cardinal was created, Divine Word member Thomas Tien Ken-sin. In 1946 the episcopal hierarchy in China was created. Its structure is still indicated in the Annuario Pontificio (The Pontifical Year Book): 20 archdioceses, 85 dioceses, 34 apostolic prefectures.
In 1949 the new communist regime guided by Mao Zedong took power and the People’s Republic of China was established. In January 1951 the Office for Religious Affairs came into being. Foreign Catholic missionaries were expelled in the first half of the 1950s. In 1957 the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) was created. Between the end of 1957 and the beginning of 1958, the first episcopal ordinations without pontifical mandate took place. In 1966 Mao Zedong started the Cultural Revolution. This would mean the prohibition of all religious activity, the closure of all places of worship, the banning of all religious practice. The adherents of the CPCA suffered enormously.
The beginning of the pontificate of John Paul II in 1978 practically coincided with the rise and reforms of Deng Xiaoping. In 1979 the first signs of opening in the religious field were seen. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, via reserved channels, many “patriotic” bishops in their new situation asked for and received recognition from Rome. In 2007 a concluding press communiqué of a Vatican meeting of a Commission on China affirmed precisely that “almost all the bishops and priests are in communion with Rome.”
In 2000 new difficulties arose between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, especially due to the ordinations of new illegitimate bishops in China and the canonization in Rome of 120 Chinese martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion on October 1, China’s National Day commemorating the declaration of the People’s Republic by Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square. John Paul II would later become strongly engaged in overcoming these problems, particularly with a widely heard message given on the occasion of a conference about Matteo Ricci at the Gregorian University (2001): it contains the recognition of “errors” and hopes soon “to see concrete forms of communication and cooperation between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China.”
May 27, 2007, saw the publication of the Letter of Benedict XVI “to the bishops, priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China,” full of pastoral indications. He insists on the unity of the Church and hopes for dialogue with the government authorities.
Quoting what John Paul II stated in his message of October 24, 2001, Benedict XVI wrote: “I am also following with particular interest the events of the entire Chinese people, whom I regard with sincere admiration and sentiments of friendship, to the point where I express the hope ‘that concrete forms of communication and cooperation between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China may soon be established. Friendship is nourished by contacts, by a sharing in the joy and sadness of different situations, by solidarity and mutual assistance.’ And pursuing this line of argument, my venerable predecessor added: ‘It is no secret that the Holy See, in the name of the whole Catholic Church and, I believe, for the benefit of the whole human family, hopes for the opening of some form of dialogue with the authorities of the People’s Republic of China. Once the misunderstandings of the past have been overcome, such a dialogue would make it possible for us to work together for the good of the Chinese People and for peace in the world.’ I realize that the normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China requires time and presupposes the good will of both parties.”
We recall how for decades bishops were elected locally by their own living churches with the approval of the government. In many cases these candidates for the episcopacy had not been approved by Rome. We remember that the process of legitimization was started by St. John Paul II and has been experienced by some 40 bishops since the year 2000. As these were bishops nominated irregularly and often ordained by other bishops who were themselves nominated without Vatican approval, they were, formally speaking, automatically excommunicated. But later, over the decades, agreements were made between these bishops and Rome. There has never been a great problem, and these bishops and the Holy See have made arrangements to recognize the nominations and to go forward with the reconstruction of the dioceses and the life of the Church. As of today, there is the grounded hope that relations between the Holy See and China will assume an even clearer form.
Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has often shown a warm and cordial attention to the Chinese people, contributing to establishing a new and more relaxed climate, which allows the effective recovery of dialogue between the Holy See and the Chinese authorities. Contacts have multiplied and communication channels appear more stable and efficacious. So, Francis has walked along the same road as St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The text of the agreement that has now been signed has only very minimal changes compared with the text elaborated at the time of Benedict XVI. Certainly, it is a solid basis for future developments. Let us not forget either that this is an agreement signed in the absence of diplomatic relations.
A passage of great importance in the relations between the Holy See and China resides in the historical interview given by Pope Francis to Professor Sisci for Asia Times, as we mentioned at the beginning. Among other things, the pope emphasized the importance of dialogue, which “does not mean ending up with a compromise,” but says: “Look, we got to this point, we can agree or disagree, but let’s walk together. This is what building means.”
And this is the logic of the agreement of September 22. It is a step that implies progress and a clear decision to listen and move forward together, overcoming the season of misunderstanding. This is a small but very important step. The path needs to be verified over time, but the direction taken seems to the right one.
The meaning of the agreement
Institutional dialogues between China and the Holy See have been going on for over 30 years, since 1986. It would be wrong, then, to imagine that these steps forward are tied to recent times. They are, rather, an important step on a journey made of well-thought-out steps taken by both parties. These are concretized in the recognition of full communion to the Chinese bishops ordained without pontifical mandate and in an agreement about the way of nominating future pastors. We note, too, that Francis has created a new diocese in Chinese territory.
Within the journey we have described that has led China and the Holy See to meet each other for an agreement, some have asked if it is acceptable that the authority to ordain bishops be ceded to the Chinese government. This question is posed incorrectly. The Church does not cede authority to ordain bishops. The history of the Church is rather to be considered as the history of the search for agreements with political authorities on the nomination of bishops.
In the current agreements with some Western democratic countries, there are still rules on the power of veto of the governments on the nomination of bishops. In some countries, civil governments still have the right of consultation or even of presentation: Argentina, Austria, the German states of Baden and Bavaria, Bolivia, Ecuador, France, Haiti, Italy, Monaco, Peru and Poland. For centuries Catholics in the United States have been accused of being faithful to the pope and not to Washington, and so they are called “papists,” a derogatory term. In Italy, during the First World War, Catholics were suspected of being allies of Austria, which was considered a Catholic country. The Holy See has also reached a consensus with Vietnam, a communist country, concerning the nomination of bishops and there have been no great problems or opposition. China and the Holy See are both showing goodwill. It is certainly in the interests of both sides to promote candidates who are farsighted, balanced and well-inserted into their communities.
We can also take a step back into history and recall the concordat of 1801 between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Holy See. By means of this agreement an effort was made at managing in a new way the relations between a modern state and the Catholic Church, between civil society and professed religion. This led to the French Catholic world becoming more united, and brought to an end the schism of the constitutional Church, which had painfully divided the Catholic faithful.
There is no need to consider this agreement between China and the Holy See as something isolated or as the final and conclusive point of a process. On the contrary, it needs to be seen within a progressive dialogue that will develop and be verified over time. Certainly, we cannot exclude that in the future there will be misunderstandings or problems to be faced. Nevertheless, the difficulties are no longer such as to impede Chinese Catholics from living in communion among themselves and with the pope. And this is certainly an important step. And it is in line with what Cardinal Pietro Parolin said in an interview with Gianni Valente, published in Vatican Insider, February 3, 2018: “It is not, therefore, a matter of maintaining a perennial conflict between opposing principles and structures, but of finding realistic pastoral solutions that allow Catholics to live their faith and to continue together the work of evangelization in the specific Chinese context.”
Nor should we forget that the CPCA has been an influential institution in the Chinese Church for more than 50 years. We can remember it was born during a particular historical period and can undergo evolutions, as it seems to have understood in recent times.
The logic of the ‘mappa mundi’
The agreement between China and the Holy See is radically and essentially pastoral. The aim is to let the Church better preach the Gospel without losing itself in internal conflicts that could be overcome with the goodwill of all concerned. Certainly, this agreement also represents a message of hope in a world where conflict and fear dominate the horizon.
Pope Francis, in February 2018 when the 4000th edition of La Civiltà Cattolica was published, recommended to our journal, as an example to follow, a man who loved China totally: Matteo Ricci, or Lì Mădòu as he was known in China (1522-1610). This Jesuit – who transferred to China when he was 30 years old – made a great mappa mundi (map of the world) depicting the continents and the islands then known. In this way the Chinese could see far distant lands in a new way, and they were named and briefly described. His mappa mundi was used to create connections between other civilizations and the Chinese people. The mappa mundi, in fact, was a bridge connecting lands, cultures and civilizations that are under the same sky. In a divided world such as our own, in a world of walls and obstacles, the ideal of harmony and of a land in peace should animate our action.
President Xi Jinping used the image of many colors in an address to UNESCO in 2014 to describe the “magnificent genetic map of the path of human civilizations” on the earth. And he added that the palette of colors of the various civilizations is enriched by “greater exchanges and reciprocal learning,” offering prospects for the future. That talk was diametrically opposed to the so-called “clash of civilizations.”
Quoting Yan Zi, prime minister of Qi, a contemporary of Confucius, the president used the image of music that combines length, rhythm, feeling, tone, style … “Who could tolerate the same tone being played continually by a single instrument?” Hence his conclusion: “Today we live in a world with different cultures, ethnic groups, skin colors, religions and social systems and all the peoples on the face of the earth have become members of a community that is intimately united and shares the same destiny.”
Pope Francis also used the image of the palette of colors and proposed the “civilization of encounter” as an alternative to the “uncivilized clash.” We also recall how Francis stated in his interview with Professor Sisci, “The Western World, the Eastern World and China each have the ability to maintain an equilibrium of peace and the strength to do so.”
However, for Francis, equilibrium is not the fruit of compromise and division – as in the Yalta model – but it is the fruit of dialogue. Moreover, it is clear the itinerary that led to the agreement between China and the Holy See crisscrossed the international situation and the specific responsibilities China has assumed on the world stage. In this historical passage the pastoral stance of Francis can have a notable impact on geopolitical dynamics, in the hope that the often prophesied catastrophic outlooks can be avoided.
At the same time, the September 22 agreement was signed without “protectors,” indeed disobeying the desire of those who would want the Holy See to side with the strong Western forces. This will leave some feeling upset, and they have not hesitated to make this known. But the Holy See implicitly follows the lesson of Cardinal Celso Costantini, whom Pius XI nominated as apostolic delegate to China. It was he who refused all forms of foreign protection for the Chinese Catholics.
The interview given to Sisci closed with a significant wish to the Chinese president. It reveals the desire that Francis continues to express when turning to politicians for the good of humanity: “I wish that you will continue to progress, so as to help and cooperate with all in taking care of our common home and of our peoples.”
It is also necessary to admit that the history of relations between the West and China has been deeply marked by colonialism and Western imperialism. Considering the relations between China and the Catholic Church, it could be said that this historical wound has given rise to problems, anxiety and reciprocal fear. Time is needed to build a relationship of trust between China and the Holy See, for example. And this is the most important thing: trust.
Here again we can allow ourselves to be led by Matteo Ricci. He had friendship in his heart. In 1601 Ricci wrote a treatise on friendship where he brought together Chinese wisdom and Western wisdom. The echo of that work became an opportunity for the mandarins and the literati of the Ming court to encounter the thought of the great Western philosophers; but it was also the occasion for other Jesuit fathers to come to understand and dialogue with the great intellectual traditions of China. The challenge was based on the existential power of dialogue, which was able to transform souls, sometimes requiring great dedication and sometimes also suffering.
“When you consider your friend as yourself,” wrote Ricci, “then what is distant becomes close, the weak become strong, the disgraced are brought to prosperity, the sick are healed.” Trust brings us together, strengthens and heals wounds – even those wounds that are still open and deep, the fruit of persecution. Trust is a process that requires time. It is a “way” more than a “goal”: a way that is aware how unity prevails over conflict. The processes of change should not be blocked in destructive and insurmountable conflicts. Trust is also that just mechanism which, as when riding a bicycle, allows us to stay upright and, as we find the right speed, ensures we go forward and do not stop.
It is not by chance that Fr. Martino Martini (1614-1661) in his Treaty on Friendship used the metaphor of sea, navigation and shipwreck to look at the theme of friendship. There is beauty in suffering and friendship. Reconciliation and dialogue, based on a trust able to overcome obstacles and errors, are a deep form of “conversion” to which we are all called.
This is why Pope Francis chose the theme of friendship to speak about China. Francis undoubtedly feels empathy toward the Chinese, an empathy that can put into motion a dynamic which leads forward, encounter by encounter. The situation of the Church in China has changed much over the decades and also during the last decade. This is very important as we look for the most adequate and accessible ways to continue the journey today.
The many challenges of today
While much ecclesial debate has so far been consumed by internal quarrels and tensions, now – thanks to this first agreement – we can better focus on the real pastoral challenges. It is not our task to describe them all exhaustively. However, it can be useful at this point to remember some of the more significant ones that have already been described during the last two years in the journal La Civiltà Cattolica in over 20 articles on the topic. This will help us look to the future with care and with hope.
The spiritual challenge. China is changing rapidly and facing different challenges compared with the past. We know that in recent decades its economy has expanded rapidly, garnering the attention of the international community. In this economic change, Chinese society and its people are seeking to give meaning to existence by drawing from different traditions and disciplines. The “Christian way” of this quest is a current theme in the educational, political and social debate within the country. Development and economic progress have not in fact eliminated the spiritual needs: faith and spirituality contribute significantly to the understanding of what it means to be human, together with human values and aspirations.
In all sectors, life has become too materialistic and utilitarian, distancing many people from their own traditions and cultures. Moreover, the ideas and behavior of many Chinese are disconnected from traditional customs and spiritual values.
Which forms of evangelization and service can the Chinese Catholic Church offer to be near to these people in their ongoing quest for meaning? Is the Church ready to face this challenge?
The ‘political’ challenge. The Chinese Catholic Church is also called to redefine its role and its relations with the Communist Party and its ideology. This does not mean that the Church always has to be in agreement with the politics and values of the party, but rather that it has to find solutions to continue its mission and ministry in China. Francesco Sisci commented in an interview with Il Sussidiario: “The point is not if the Chinese Communist Government is ideal or evil. The point, as the pope said, is: ‘What to do?’” And he concluded: “Certainly in doing, you risk making a mistake, but you also risk doing well. As the pope has always said, it is bad not to seek to do well.”
Traditional and cultural Chinese values and Gospel values and ecclesial teaching, moreover, have many things in common. Chinese society and the Church have to understand and appreciate the shared values and pursue their dialogue in the quest for the common good.
The challenge of internal divisions. We recall too that there have been many tensions around the so-called “official” and “non-official” communities. Both have suffered in different ways for their faith. However, we cannot remain tied forever to the past without imagining that the suffering experienced cannot bear fruits for a future of reconciliation. Both communities today are called to a new phase so that the Gospel can be preached more effectively in China. Pastoral and missionary conversion is today more fundamental than ever. The distinctions between communities and the relations between them derive from local situations. Especially in the larger cities, they are more ephemeral and less relevant for the young Catholics.
But Chinese Catholics know well how these divisions and difficulties in the relations with the civil authorities have been a burden, rendering the pathway of the Catholic Church in China still arduous today. On the contrary, the Protestant communities are decidedly more active and suffer less the burden of internal tensions.
The two communities – the “official” and the “non-official” ones – should not allow hatred and injury from the past to condition their lives and impede the great mission that awaits them. Tensions and misunderstandings need to be overcome. Bishops and priests have to take the first step to be united and work together for the kingdom of God in China, without clashes for power and prestige. In this way ecclesial reconciliation will be possible, something which is essential for the development of the Catholic Church in China.
This is how Cardinal Parolin summarized the challenge in his interview with Gianni Valente: “Certainly, there are many wounds still open. To heal them we need the balm of mercy. And if someone is asked to make a sacrifice, small or great, it needs to be clear to all that this is not the price of a political exchange, but is part of the Gospel perspective of the greater good, the good of the Church of Christ.” The objective is that of “no longer having to speak of ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate,’ of ‘clandestine’ or ‘official’ bishops in the Church in China, but of meetings among brothers, learning anew the language of collaboration and communion.” This is the objective that remains and the hope that accompanies the steps already made and those that will be made in the future.
The challenge of Sinicization. As China has its own characteristics, the Catholic Chinese Church is called to be fully Catholic and fully Chinese, so as to inculturate its teachings and the values of the Gospel. Taking on Chinese characteristics means an in-depth approach to the process of inculturation.
The Church can dialogue with Chinese cultures and traditions, with its rich history of art, music, literature and poetry. President Xi Jinping, in the address to UNESCO quoted above, praised the role of religions in the life of the country. He said: “During the last 2,000 years, religions like Buddhism, Islam and Christianity have been introduced to China, feeding the country’s music, painting and literature.”
In the case of Christianity, the examples are countless. We note only the role of the great painter Giuseppe Castiglione (Láng Shìníng, as he was known in China), who was born in Milan in 1688 and died in Beijing in 1766. He received imperial funeral rites from the Emperor Qianlong who thought highly of him.
A particularly important challenge comes from the fact that in recent years the Chinese leadership has repeatedly asked for the religions that are present in Chinese territory to “sinicize” (zhongguohua). This theme appears in the speeches of Xi Jinping from 2015 onward, but it became more frequently used just before and after the 19th Congress of the Communist Party in October 2017. The president’s introductory speech at the congress reads: “We will fully implement the party’s basic policy on religious affairs, uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society.”
If it is clear that no religion can become a mere instrument of the political apparatus, it is equally true that the content of the tasks that the government asks religious organizations and believers to actuate is far from being clearly defined. In a changing context there is perhaps space for encounter and imagination.
A reflection on the past can be useful here. We recall that for Christianity it was essential to embrace its own universal mission, beyond its original experience and Jewish culture, and for Christianity to immerse itself into Greek culture. This had a strong influence on the development of the life and mission of the Church, even managing to transform the world of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was not the only culture shaped by the Greeks. Aristotle and Plato influenced all the culture that went from Rome to the foothills of the then-unsurmountable Himalayas. Christianity is thought of in Greek concepts. What would it mean to think of it in Chinese concepts?
To reflect on this theme, it might be useful to consider what then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in the preface to the Chinese translation of his book-interview Salt of the Earth: “The true question is: Can the Christian faith be a long-lasting response, lived not only by a minority of the Chinese but also become a force that shapes all of China?”
“Will there one day be an Asian or Chinese Christianity, just as a Greek and Latin Christianity appeared as a result of the transition from Judaism to Paganism? Or as in the late classical period, a Germanic, Slavic and European Christianity?”
The theological challenge. In this sphere a theological reflection also makes sense. In the context of Confucianism and traditional Taoism, theology seeks to closely connect the great tradition of Chinese thought and sensibility with Christianity. Christianity also needs to be thought through in Chinese terms in light of the great Chinese wisdom and philosophy.
For example, the philosophical and mystical doctrines of ancient Taoism composed between the fourth and third centuries B.C. could be looked at more closely. In Dao Te Ching, the most translated book after the Bible, we might find some perspectives that are very useful for Chinese thought to understand in-depth the Gospel and, vice versa, to deepen in a new way the Christian message. We think, for example, of the Christian commentary on the Tao Te Ching made by Jesuit Fr. Claude Larre at the end of the 1960s. If we are to recognize that Jesus Christ liberates the person without imposing any particular logic or single philosophical vision, then nothing can impede the insertion of faith in Christ into the heart of the simple, ardent and discrete spirituality of Dao Te Ching.
A future to be written
Following the agreement of September 22, the Church in China is called to renew with vigor its mission of proclaiming the Gospel, to contribute as effectively as possible to the good of the Chinese people, with its religious message and social and charitable commitment. This is why it must be fully Chinese and localized, going deep in the process of inculturation, in light of the universality that belongs to Catholicism. So, fully Chinese and fully Catholic. This is the objective that the Church has proposed since the period when Celso Costantini was apostolic delegate in China (1922-1933).
We should not see the agreement as a point of arrival, but as a starting point. There are no automatic guarantees the quality of Chinese Catholic religious life will improve. The challenges remain, but certainly the process of remodeling the relationship between the two parties is a positive one for Chinese Catholics.
What has the Catholic Church asked in desiring, over time, such an agreement? Cardinal Parolin has answered this in the interview mentioned earlier: “With honesty and realism, the Church asks nothing other than to profess its faith serenely, closing definitively a long period of opposition, to open spaces of greater trust and to offer a positive contribution of Catholics to the good of the whole of Chinese society.”
The task is also well summarized in the words Pope Francis pronounced at the Angelus on May 22, 2016: “May Chinese Catholics, together with those who follow other noble religious traditions, become concrete signs of charity and reconciliation. In this way, they will promote an authentic culture of encounter and the harmony of the whole of society. This harmony that the Chinese spirit so loves.”
And us? What is our task in light of this new step of the agreement? On our side, as Cardinal Parolin stated during a recent conference, “we are all called to accompany with loving closeness, respect, humility and above all prayer, this path of the Church in China. This is a matter of writing a new page of history, looking forward with trust in Divine Providence and healthy realism to ensure a future where Chinese Catholics can feel themselves deeply Catholic, even more visibly anchored to the solid rock that, through the will of Jesus, is Peter, and fully Chinese, without denying or belittling all that is true, noble, just, pure, lovable, honorable (see Phil 4:8) and that has been produced by their history and their culture.”