As this magazine has recently reported, Bishop Thomas Zhang Huaixin of Anyang has died at the age of 90. Bishop Thomas was a person of great holiness, as well as being a figure who summed up in his life many of the difficulties that Chinese Catholics have had to face at the hands of the Communist authorities.
As a young priest, he spent six years in a labour camp, for the supposed crimes of being a “rightist”. When he was consecrated as bishop, this was done clandestinely, as the Chinese authorities refuse to allow anyone to minister as a bishop unless they are appointed and approved by the state.
Only much later was the Bishop “rehabilitated”, though he accepted this without joining the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the state-sponsored and controlled pseudo-church.
One hopes no one in the West, where this sort of state interference in religious matters in unknown, underestimates the sufferings of Chinese Catholics, or indeed their steadfastness in the face of such state-sponsored persecution. And let us hope no one underestimates the determination of the Chinese government to reduce the Catholic Church to a department of state, and just why this is so unacceptable to us.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, in the country that the Chinese insist is no more than a rebel province of the mainland, the Papal chargé d’affaires has been posted elsewhere, and perhaps will not be replaced.
It is thought that the Vatican is soon to initiate diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, and break them off with Taiwan as a necessary part of this process. Of course, virtually every state on earth has already done this, but that the Vatican should follow where the rest of the world has led seems depressing.
There seems to be no doubt that Pope Francis’s chief diplomat, Cardinal Parolin, wants this outcome. But there are certain important questions that we all need to ask.
First of all, given that the Holy See will not (as a matter of principle) have diplomatic relations with any nation that does not practice religious toleration, are we to understand that the Chinese government is going to turn over a new leaf in this regard? And if it does change its religious policy, how is this to be verified?
Secondly, if the Vatican is to initiate closer relations with mainland China, in what way would this benefit the Catholic Church in China? It would certainly be a propaganda coup for the Chinese government: but what would the Church take away from the negotiating table?
Thirdly, given that Chinese Catholics have suffered so much at the hands of their own government, and suffered so steadfastly and bravely for decades, do they really want a rapprochement with the Chinese Communist party, which might, perhaps, not be in power much longer?
Finally, spare a thought for the democratically elected government of Taiwan, which has long treated the Church as it should. Is this the way to treat them?