China and the Vatican – The times they are a changin’ - Limes

China and the Vatican – The times they are a changing


Why is China slowly getting closer to the Catholic Church?
How long will it take?

An answer in Bergoglio’s political thought as illustrated in an essay by Father José Luis Narvaja

Father José Luis Narvaja’s recent essay on the political thought of Pope Bergoglio provides some guidelines to understand the Pope’s strategy for the difficult negotiations with China and its global implications.

Narvaja emphasizes that for Bergoglio, politics is the science of constituting and maintaining the polis, the unity of social organization. He thus identifies the Pope’s four principles to achieve “the common good and social peace” (Evangelii gaudium 217-237).

They are, “Time is greater than space” (EG 222-225);
“Unity prevails over the conflict” (226-230);
“Reality is more important than the idea” (EG 231-233);
and “Everything is superior to the part” (EG 234-237).

First, “Everything is superior to the part”.
The common good and peace of the polis are linked to everything and not to one part—not to any of the parties, but to all parties.

The Pope’s message is addressed to all the people of God, for it is inclusive. We know that tension between the whole and a party creates conflicts that threaten this unity when they tend to favor some of the parts.
When conflicts arise, then the intent of political action is tested—that is, whether it is intended for the common good or only that of a party. The Pope states that every conflict must be resolved on a higher level, in which the unity is respected—that is, all.

This last principle resembles Confucianism as recovered by President Hu Jintao with his harmonious society (hexie shehui).
The idea of harmonious society, in fact, in China is a fundamental step to overcome the Marxist principle of class struggle. It seeks a social peace to eliminate or minimize social conflicts and clashes.
Class struggle was not really the instrument by which the Communist Party had come to power, stirring the hatred of the oppressed against the oppressors as the philosopher of Trier postulated.

The Communist Party came to power on nationalist positions: spreading the narrative of itself as the true anti-Japanese and anti-imperialist fighter in the civil war against Tokyo, which had been invading China since 1937. Class struggle became Mao’s governing tool once the party came to power after 1949.

This happened several times: the “land reform” at the beginning of the 1950s, when agricultural laborers were mobilized to struggle against and lynch wealthy landowners or peasants who were just a little wealthier than them; during the “campaign against the right” in 1957, when hundreds of thousands of intellectuals, labeled “rightists,” were sent to labor camps in the country for reeducation; and during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) when all Communist government officials were persecuted along with the heirs of the old regime.

That is, class struggle was used by Mao as a means of government and internal control.

Hu Jintao, on the other hand, changed course and laid the foundations for a new social conception, where social classes should not be considered to preserve the overall harmony of society.

This was somehow paradoxical: when Mao used class struggle, the classes actually did not exist anymore and certainly there was no social clash; when Hu promoted the idea of ​​harmonious society, social differences were becoming very marked and were endangering social unity.

In fact, the government’s goal had changed. Mao’s ideas and principles were to serve only as a means of strengthening his position in command, without actually considering the stability and wellbeing of the state. In Hu’s China, the goal was different: it was necessary to maintain social stability, to fend off clashes to enable the country and the state to move on the road of development.

This attitude forced the party to adapt to the idea that it had ceased to represent workers and peasants, as in Mao’s times. About a decade earlier, Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, had launched the notion that the party represented the most advanced social, productive, and intellectual forces.

They could stand for workers and peasants at one point and entrepreneurs and scientists at another.

This concept of ​​the “Three Represents” had been a bridge concept with traditional Marxism, which accepted the idea of ​​the party as avant-garde, but made it more abstract and historicized at various times.

It actually reflected a non-isolated concept of international Marxism. Indeed, in Italy Communist Party founder Antonio Gramsci had already written about this concept of the party, inspired by The Prince of Machiavelli as a vanguard of history. In this he had already disconnected the party from his relationship with the working class.

In some ways, the Pope’s thought paradoxically lies precisely on the path of the evolution of the political and social theory of the Chinese Communist Party. Also, the Pope’s thought is addressed to all the people of God.

He expressly does not refer only to believers, as some of his predecessors did in the past. In an interview in 2016, the Pope, in fact, addressed all Chinese people—not only Catholics, who are a tiny minority—with great sense of realism, following the principle that “reality is more important than the idea” (EG 231-233).

This convergence was then confirmed by the fact, absolutely not trivial nor obvious, that the Pope’s interview was picked up in hundreds of Chinese headlines just hours after its publication.
It was also followed by articles in the Global Times (the semi-official newspaper, part of the People’s Daily, the Party’s house organ) and television broadcasts that followed closely the evolution of bilateral relations, trying to create consensus in China on this approach.

In other words, it is clear that President Xi Jinping recognizes the importance of Catholicism, and follows it carefully as none of his predecessors had done.

The Chinese gift to the Pope of a copy of the Christian Steele of Xi’an in August 2016 further affirmed two things. One, Christianity is part of the ancient Chinese cultural tradition, and it is not a Western colonialist insertion of the 19th century, as was once claimed by the official propaganda. Moreover, Christianity is part of the Silk Road, so it is an integral part of the new Chinese foreign policy that Xi Jinping launched with his new One Belt, One Road initiative.

At the same time, however, Catholicism is a very delicate issue. It remains extremely controversial because of the Cold War legacy, when the Church took clear anti-Communist positions. A part of the Communist Party fears that the Church is a kind of fifth column of international imperialism that wants to enter China to subvert it.

This Chinese concern was addressed by the Church with an important article in Civiltà Cattolica, which in turn has had a very positive echo in China.

In the light of this progressive convergence, however, the question remains of why there has not yet been a normalization of relations.

Father Narvaja introduces another important element of Bergoglio’s political thought: time.

Narvaja says, “There is therefore need of time: time for the truth to shine and to impose itself, without violence; Time that allows God’s action in the life of man and the city.

That is why ‘time is superior to space.’ Respect for temporal dynamics means an openness to growth, dialogue, reflection, conversion, and the action of the Spirit.”

Time in this case is the time for the Church and China to grow closer, to create a new situation. This is a political and cultural horizon very different from the simple diplomatic bargain of the quid pro quo, where two countries exchange favors and blackmail to establish relationships that can be viable just commercially, not necessarily politically or culturally.

The Pope appears extremely careful to bring along the whole Church on this path to China, which is also a path toward a new position for the Church in the world. He cannot and must not repeat what happened to the Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries, leaving those who are “favorable to dialogue” alone, as a vanguard detached from the rest of the body of the Church.

Actually, the Church’s dialogue with China comes after about 30 years of strenuous work. Pope Wojtyla, who came from a communist country, and was therefore not scared of communism, had pushed hard to improve relations with China.

There were two particularly significant initiatives of the Pope in the 1980s. The first was granting the state of necessity to the Chinese Church (then revoked with Pope Ratzinger’s letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007).

Thanks to it, the Chinese Church ordained its bishops without asking for the Pope’s permission. In addition, the Pope forgave and approved some bishops that the official church had unlawfully ordained. Both the state of necessity and the forgiveness of official bishops were not painless events for the Chinese Church.

The state of necessity led to the appointment of bishops and priests in both the underground and the official church who were sometimes not in line with the hopes of Rome. Moreover, the forgiveness of official bishops has created resentment in the underground church, some of whom feel betrayed still today by that forgiveness and feel they suffered and fought for decades against the “traitors” of the official church only to have the Pope forgive them.

In this sentiment, there is the gospel apologue of the Prodigal Son, whose faithful children are resentful of the father embracing the child who has repented. But this also rests on a historical reality that is very strong today.

Until some 10 or 15 years ago, much of the work in the relationship was entrusted to the Patriotic Association (AP), the semi-governmental organization backed by Beijing to check Catholics in China.
Sometimes, the AP played many sides. In Rome, it said it was a Chinese government body and therefore had to answer to Beijing; in Beijing, it said it was Catholic and thus had to answer to Rome.
The two statements, basically correct, with time have created a cozy position where, however, communications might not have been totally linear. Certain AP actions were not communicated to Beijing and some others were not explained well in Rome.

This was certainly done with the best intention of fostering dialogue, but perhaps also a result of the tendency of the Chinese Communist Party and Catholic Church to avoid confrontation and thus to gloss over the most thorny topics.
Over the years, this created huge misunderstandings on both sides, confusion that even today has not been fully cleared.

Furthermore, the international space of dialogue with China during Wojtyla’s times was very different. With Wojtyla, the Church was part of the Cold War front, and in China it inherited the ambiguity of the American policy inaugurated with Nixon.
On the one hand, China remained an opponent, as a communist nation, but it was also an ally, as an anti-Soviet element.

This position, already difficult in geopolitical terms, became almost impossible if transposed on religious grounds, especially after the end of the Cold War, as China started to gradually slide into the position of an international trampler of human rights in the eyes of certain Western media.

But it was a position guaranteed by a clear international context in which America was the reference superpower, during the Cold War, or the total superpower, until the current crisis represented by President Donald Trump’s need to say “America First.” America First really means that America feels that it is no longer important; it feels threatened, and communicates to the world its state of alarm and crisis.

So the situation is very different from Wojtyla and Ratzinger’s papacies. The 2008 financial crisis, the failure of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the defeat of the Arab revolutions in the Middle East, and the madness of the Syrian war, have destroyed the dream of America’s total power. On the other hand, the fact that America has remained the only superpower after 16 years of failures demonstrates the enormous American strength and resilience.

Certainly, this creates a much more vague, fluid, inaccurate international context than the definite trenches of the Cold War.
This is true both at the political level and in its consequences for the largest organized and united religions of the world, such as the Church of Rome.
That is, the Church no longer has its own space cleared in international context, as during the Cold War.
Then the world of religious tolerance was against that of intolerance – the alliance of all religions (Christians or Muslims), each in sacred respect for the limits of others, and all united against atheism.

There is now a world that on the one hand wants new wars on the basis of religion, and on the other works for a much more intense inter-religious dialogue, thus overcoming the old boundaries between religions.

With Wojtyla, and even more so with Ratzinger and Bergoglio, the Holy See moved on from Cold War policies. In this, Ratzinger’s letter of 2007 was a fundamental shift of horizon that allowed for the new initiatives of Pope Bergoglio, assisted with care and prudence by the Secretary of State Parolin. In this, a new direct and clear relationship with Beijing leaders no longer moves through the AP. This limitation of the AP’s role is a very important element of the new dialogue, as the AP is a controversial organization in the eyes of believers who are suspicious of clergy appointed and approved by the party.

On the other hand, Beijing, thinking of the whole and not just one side (as Narvaja says of Bergoglio), perhaps cannot and does not want to eliminate the AP, but wants to somehow integrate it.

This integration was indicated by the AP Congress in December 2016. The Congress also invited prelates who were not members of the AP, and the workings were closed by Yu Zhengsheng, number four in the Chinese hierarchy, a sign of extreme attention that the party dedicates to Catholicism.

There is therefore an effort by the Holy See and in China for deeper understanding, but this will take time, realism, and seeking high mediation for the common good.

These are all the Pope’s principles that China seems to understand clearly. Even the last one, in fact, listening to the signs of the Holy Spirit, is understandable and indeed goes to the root of Chinese feeling, once we translate the Holy Spirit to the Tao.

The Tao is a straighter, natural pathway forward to climb the mountain, and it is the set of signs that the Chinese have to read and decipher to follow the right path without trying to force things.

This is perhaps not far from the idea of ​​the signs of the Holy Spirit of Bergoglio.


José Luis Narvaja, “Il significato della politica internazionale di Francesco,” La Civiltà Cattolica, 2017 III 8-15 | 4009 (1/15 July 2017), p. 10.

Hu Jintao, “Zongshuji ‘qiyi’ zhongyao jianghua,” July 1, 2011, for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

“Ba ‘sange daibiao’ zhongyao sixiang de xuexi guanche yinxiang shenru” (Deepen the study and
implementation of the important thinking of the “Three Represents”)

A. Gramsci, “Note su Machiavelli,” Editori Riuniti, Roma, 1971.

F. Sisci, “Pope Francis urges world not to fear China’s rise: AT exclusive“, Asia Times, 2 Feb. 2016.

J. Jie, “Under Pope Francis and President Xi, hopes rise for a thaw in ties“, Global Times, 25 Feb 2016.

S. Jie, “‘Cautious optimism’ over Sino-Vatican ties as Catholic Congress opens in Beijing“, Global Times, 28 Dec. 2016.

Joseph You Guo Jiang, S.J., “Catholicism in 21st Century China“, La Civiltà Cattolica, May 2017.