Mar 31, 2006 | 10:30 GMT

5 mins read

A Question of Church and State

Chinese Catholics at a government-sanctioned church in 2014.
(Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

A growing number of reports are suggesting that the Vatican is in discussions with Beijing, with an eye toward normalizing relations with mainland China. Such a move would, of course, mean a break in relations between the Vatican and Taiwan. The situation poses an interesting dilemma for Beijing. On the one hand, China would very much like for the Holy See to drop its political support for what it sees as the renegade government in Taipei. On the other, China keenly remembers the role the Catholic Church played in the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and it is in no hurry to give a potentially hostile competing power access to China's citizens.

Discussions between the Vatican and Beijing are nothing new: They occur sporadically, and periodically — as appears to be the case just now — they reach a crescendo. The major sticking points between the two, at least on the surface, are rather easily defined. The Vatican is concerned about human rights and religious rights in China, and it wants to retain sole authority to appoint bishops in the Chinese Catholic Church. For its part, Beijing does not want the church to interfere in politics, and it demands that anyone who recognizes Beijing as the legitimate Chinese government must break ties with Taipei. On this latter point, the Vatican has held out an enticing carrot to China, saying, in essence: Give us an "in" and we will immediately sever ties with Taiwan. Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican's secretary for relations with states, was quoted by Western media recently as saying that "the spiritual needs of millions of Chinese Catholics were clearly more urgent that the needs of 300,000 Taiwan Catholics." Lajolo also has encouraged the newly appointed Cardinal Zen Ze-Klung of Hong Kong to show respect for China. For Beijing, recognition from the Vatican would be far better than winning the diplomatic battle over the allegiance of Papua New Guinea.

The Vatican decision likely would prompt a shift in policy among several of the few diplomatic consorts Taiwan has — particularly those in Latin America. It also would lend weight — at least in Beijing's mind — to the mainland's claim of sovereignty over Taiwan. The Holy See has made several other moves indicating its willingness to work with China. Last year the Vatican approved the head of the Diocese of Shanghai — a state-sanctioned church, which is controlled by the government in Beijing — Aloysius Jin, and his heir-apparent, Xing Wenzhi. The Vatican, did not, however, approve the leader of Shanghai's underground church, Joseph Fan. It has been suggested that the pope will cease to appoint bishops from the underground church — which is loyal to the pope. For Beijing, the question of relations with the Vatican involves some inherent soul-searching. China's leadership views nothing as more important than maintaining the Communist Party as the unchallenged authority in the land. Beijing sees the structure of the Catholic Church — with the pope upheld as God's representative on earth — as a direct threat to the Party. The core issue is not about protecting the communist ideology, or old phrases about the opiate of the masses, but about ultimate control of the masses. This is why Beijing acts so swiftly and, from an outside perspective, seemingly irrationally, to quash anything that might gain such control — whether that means religious movements or direct sales schemes.

The 1999 crackdown against the Falun Gong, for example, represented a very rational step (from Beijing's perspective) by a very frightened regime. Any organization that could rally thousands of people from all over China to stand with complete discipline around the Communist Party's seat of power — without prior detection from the state security forces — was regarded as an organization that threatened the very existence of the leadership. And when the government discovered that the group's leader was in the United States — not to mention that the Falun Gong's members came from all levels of society, the military and the Party itself, and even claimed numbers far exceeding the membership of the Communist Party — there was only one option: to seek out and destroy the potential competitor. By its own calculus, the Party must be the center of gravity in China.

However, if China were to normalize ties with the Vatican, it essentially would be saying that it is OK for Chinese Catholics to look to a higher authority in the pope. It also would open the door for Vatican intervention in Chinese politics. It is a question of sovereignty. The Party now faces a curious dilemma. If it concedes some authority to the Vatican, pressure would be heightened for Taiwan to eventually reunify with the mainland. However, the price of a concession to the church might be too high for the Party, which already is dealing with considerable social and political instability. That said, Beijing could spin a relationship with the Vatican to its favor: If the regime played its cards right, it could use the normalization of ties as proof that the Communist Party really is a party of the people. If Beijing takes this tack, the state-run media will soon be taking that ball and running with it.

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