Cardinal Zen is right to be wary of the Vatican’s approach to China

Cardinal Zen (AP)

There has been so much in the media about Prince Harry and his new girlfriend Meghan Markle, as well as a fair bit of coverage of both the American election and the High Court ruling on the triggering of Article 50, that you may have missed what might be the most important story of the moment, namely the continuing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. These are led by two brave young people called Sixtus “Baggio” Leung and Yau Wai-ching. And brave they certainly are, as those who oppose the will of the Chinese Communist Party generally pay a high price for it.

What is the Catholic Church’s position on the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement? Or indeed what is its position on the pro-democracy movement in China as a whole, and in particular in Tibet and among the Uighurs, who live in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region? As one holding a license and a doctorate in moral theology, I should be able to expound the Church’s teaching on this matter and apply it to the Chinese situation.

The Church’s social teaching emphasises the importance of subsidiarity, that is, that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level. In other words, the Uighurs should have autonomy on all the matters that relate to them, rather than having to await decisions made in distant Beijing: what we in Europe call devolution. And in cases where a people have a distinctive culture, language and home, where the characteristics of a nation exist, then they should have independence if indeed that is what they democratically determine for themselves.

Consider the case of Scotland. The Church has been supportive of devolution, as it makes sense for Scottish matters to be decided in Scotland. The Church would have supported independence if that were what the majority had voted for. The Church would justify the continued existence of the United Kingdom by pointing to the benefits of shared responsibility in matters that concern all of the constituent nations, saying that this arrangement is for the common good.

Are the current arrangements in Tibet, in Xinjiang, and in Hong Kong for the common good? Do they reflect the popular will? I very much doubt anyone, Catholic or not, could argue that case. The thrust of Catholic social teaching is clear; and the conclusions one should draw when applying it to the Chinese situation, equally so. Of course if China were a democracy which respected human rights, it is quite possible that the current separatist movements might become less pressing. But the Chinese government is any thing but: it remains repressive in many areas of life, bar the economic, including the area of religion.

Given that the Chinese government is atheist, one would expect it to have no interest in religion, but this is far from the case, as this magazine has reported on numerous occasions. The Chinese government has, for example, waged war on crosses, pretending that this is something to do with planning laws, but which is clearly ideological.

But it gets worse. The Chinese government is not just interested in Church architecture, it also wishes to determine who should minister in churches as well. For years, the government has exercised control over “official” churches both Catholic and Protestant, whose bishops it appoints. Those bishops it does not appoint it has persecuted. The idea is to bring religion under the control of the state, and to make the Church yet another department of government. It is all part of the Chinese government’s addiction to state control. Reuters has an article here that explains this complicated situation.

But how complicated is it really? The Church has faced this challenge many a time. In England, it happened when St Thomas was Archbishop of Canterbury. The state tried to exercise control over the Church; the Archbishop resisted and paid for it with his life. Until the late nineteenth century almost all Catholic bishops in the world were appointed by the state. The freedom of the Church to appoint its own bishops has been won only after a long and hard struggle for independence. And how right the Church was to insist on the freedom to appoint its own bishops! It is essential, if we are to have bishops who serve God rather than Mammon.

This is why Cardinal Zen is right. Let us hope that his wise advice prevails. If the Church in China were to accept state-appointed bishops, this would severely damage the Church and confuse the faithful. Moreover, it would destroy the Church’s credibility in China, making it just another institution to have sold out to the repressive government in Beijing. I don’t know how religious or otherwise someone like Sixtus “Baggio” Leung is, but he, and the other pro-democracy activists, would, whatever their religious allegiance, be deeply disappointed by the Church siding with the enemies of democracy and freedom.