– Marco Carvalho
A respectful cooperation between China and the Vatican will benefit not only the Church and the Central Government, but mainly the Chinese faithful. Coordinator of the Department of Catholic Theology at the Faculty of Religious Studies at the University of Saint Joseph, Franz Gassner sees the agreement recently signed between the Holy See and Beijing as the beginning of a long process of reconciliation and dialogue. Assistant Professor for Christian Studies, Austrian-born Gassner recognizes that the consensus could and should be improved, but believes that it represents already good news for the Chinese Catholics. More harm would be done, he says, if risks were not taken and the agreement hadn’t been signed.
Although we still don’t know much about the content of the historical agreement that was signed recently in Beijing, we know already that it endorses the authority of the Pope to approve the appointment of future Bishops. How important is this stance for the Vatican and for the Catholic Church?
This agreement seems to be crucial for the life, development, and unity of the Catholic Church in China. The Church in China has now to be very careful to preserve this achieved unity and to act like it did in Vietnam. The past factions and disunity of the past wasted a lot of time, energy and opportunities to witness to the Good News in China, also in view of its harmonious development. Also in this agreement, the Pope is recognized as an official entity in China for the first time.
The Holy See spokesperson, Greg Burke, announced the deal as the beginning of something bigger for the Catholics in China. What can be expected in the medium and long term that was not yet still announced?
This should be the beginning of an honest and mutual process of learning and a better understanding. Both sides – the Vatican and the civil leadership in China – can learn from each other and help each other to serve the people and the Catholics of China better. To defend the dignity and authentic freedom of every human being must be a common goal for both sides. Religion as soft power is of immense relevance for the history and development of human societies. Christianity is of Asian origin, as all major world religions. The Catholic form of its expression is fully compatible with Chinese culture and traditions. And the global church will be enriched by more Chinese aspects and dimensions.
I also want to say that Marxism can be seen as a Christian heresy. It is not by accident that Karl Marx emerged in Christian Europe. Marxist thought has “Jewish-messianic roots … and still also preserved biblical motifs….It took biblical hope as its basis but inverted it by keeping the religious ardor but eliminating God and replacing him with the political activity of man” (Pope Benedict XVI). The Bishop of Trier, the birthplace of Karl Marx, said recently on the occasion of China’s donation of a statue of Marx to the city of Trier on his 200th birthday: “Karl Marx is connected with powerful political movements. He was a sharp analytical mind, but many of his ideas also brought harm over mankind….But he has to be respected. Catholic social teaching developed in debate with his theories, as the catholic answer to them, so to say” (Bishop Stephan Ackermann, Trier, Germany, May 5th 2018). The agreement of Sept. 22 could inspire an open and honest debate about Marx and social development. We can learn a lot from one another. Marx believed that religion and God will or should vanish in order to make room for human freedom and development. But historical development proves that sound religion and authentic faith in God can go hand in hand with a harmonious and prosperous development of man and society. Especially, the experience of Christian faith and truth liberates and makes free. This is why the recognition of the Pope by the civil authorities of China and listening to him do not diminish the authentic self-regulation and the autonomy of the Church of China. The opposite can and will happen. True catholicity always strengthens, nourishes and enriches the very own potentials and powers, better than sectarianism or factionalism can do.
In that sense, what are the main challenges that remain?
First, there will be the need of a time of reconciliation and healing of past wounds. Nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes and sins. Each one needs forgiveness and to forgive. Everybody should think about how to assist in this process of healing and reconciliation. Then, it is of utmost importance to care and preserve the historically achieved unity of the Catholic Church for the good of the Catholic faithful, the Chinese people and the Chinese nation. This will require an ongoing, honest dialogue about pending issues and many learning processes, but also a spirit of genuine openness from every side of this agreement.
The Holy See also announced that Pope Francis recognized seven government-appointed Bishops and recognized a Diocese that was created by the Central Government. Although this has been seen as a way to unify the Catholics of China, for those who criticize the agreement, it marks a shameful retreat towards authoritarianism. Could this deal create unity in China but risk dissent everywhere else? Do you see the possibility of a schism?
Yes, we all have now to pray and work even more for China and the unity of the Church in this important country. There is the danger of a schism, but there is no future and gain in any form of schism. Everybody will lose, not only in China, also abroad, not only spiritually, also economically.
The deal doesn’t say much about the fate of the more than 30 underground bishops that are working in China, were chosen by the Pope but are not recognised by the Chinese Government. Might this be an issue?
I said already: there is the need for a process of healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Catholics should be experts on that. One of these mentioned bishops – Bishop Wei – expressed already his positive judgement regarding the agreement. Leaders in touch with the people and faithful know what is at stake and they sense the relevance of this historical opportunity for the Church and for China as a whole.
Is the underground Church better off with this deal? Or will it mean even more stigma for those that refuse to bow to Central Government supervision?
St Paul says that love overcomes everything (1 Cor 13). We have to think about how to help better the church in China to grow in love and heal wounds and become reconciled and stay united even in very difficult situations.
The Holy See press office underlined for more than one instance that the deal was provisional and the word seems to have a very particular weight, having in mind the Chinese reality. Could this mean that the Vatican might be willing to negotiate a more balanced long-term solution, having in mind the well being of the Chinese Catholics?
It is positive if the agreement is honestly evaluated and improved. As I said, this should be the start of a long-term dialogue and mutual learning process in view of a better understanding of each side and most importantly for the good of the Chinese people and the faithful.
The Vatican also said that the content of the agreement will be subjected to an evaluation mechanism, but China is not always very keen on putting the international compromises it assumes above its own interests. We have seen this happening several times … Is it a risk to see this agreement already as an acquired accomplishment?
Sometimes it is good to take a risk, especially when the issue is carefully prepared and planned for a long time with so many voices and experts involved. I think the risk is justified in this case. More harm would be done if the risk were not taken.
How would you qualify this deal, in a global perspective? Would you say it’s good? What could it mean for the Church in Macau and in Hong Kong?
To my knowledge, this deal is limited in regard to the appointment of bishops only. And this is positive and necessary. In my home country, when a new Bishop is chosen by the Pope, the chosen name goes first to the Austrian government. And the government meets and has the right of veto if there is a serious issue with the candidate. It did not happen in the last 50 years. But it shows a kind of respect from both sides, both the Vatican and the Austrian government. There are also many fields of cooperation of the Austrian government and the local Catholic Church, e.g. in the field of education or in the social areas. This is for the overall good of the people, country and faithful. I do not know how this can work out here in Macau, Hong Kong or in China. But a respectful cooperation would benefit all. There is also the need for a better philosophical and theological education and formation of lay faithful and also of secular and civil officials, educators, politicians, lawmakers and others. This will be crucial for a just and harmonious development of China. Macau as World-Lab and Education Hub can offer the Church in China in this regard a better future.