The Vatican and China have agreed to improve relations after a break of almost 70 years. This is a controversial decision for both sides.
After the communists came to power in 1949, there was a clamp down on all religious activities. Eventually, some religious activities were officially permitted but only under strict governmental control.
The Holy See (Vatican) has long sought to run its own affairs in whichever countries it operates. This has not been possible in China.
In China, the "official" Catholic Church is the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Seven bishops have been created by the Chinese government but these were not recognized by the Vatican and so were excluded from international Catholic gatherings (such as those in Rome).
There is also an "underground" Catholic Church which does not have official recognition. There are about 10 to 12 million Catholics in China and the number is growing.
Under the new agreement, the Vatican will now recognize the seven bishops created by the Chinese government, and the Vatican and the government will in future negotiate on who else will be made bishops. The Holy See is sharing its power in appointments – something it does not do elsewhere.
The negotiations have gone on for many years (possibly as many as 30) and so this was not a quick decision by the current Pope. But for some of his critics, this will provide additional ammunition.
The agreement has been criticised by retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen and others who do not like this closeness between the Vatican and Beijing. There are also some overseas-born Chinese (such as those living in the USA who do not like it either. Members of the "underground" Church have sometimes suffered for their faith; they must now wonder if their sacrifice was worth it.
The Catholic Church has been around, in one form of another, for two millennia. Therefore, it could be argued, the Vatican could have waited for a few more decades before making this agreement. The Vatican could outlast the current Chinese government and so it could have waited to do a deal. There was no urgent need for one now.
Taiwan must also be troubled by it. The Holy See is the only European entity to recognize Taiwan and is one of only 17 countries worldwide to do so. Taiwan must be worried about losing an ally in its competition with China for international recognition.
Meanwhile, within China there must also be some apprehension among the communist hardliners. For the atheistic Chinese government to do a deal with the Vatican is a recognition that religion is still a factor in Chinese affairs.
The sacrifice of Catholic and Protestant missionaries decades ago are now paying off. The movie Chariots of Fire, for example, commemorated the Olympic career of Eric Liddell (1902-45). After the 1924 Paris Olympics, he went off to be a missionary in China (where he had been born of Scottish missionary parents) and died there as a Japanese POW. All that work has paid off in the long sweep of history because the number of Christians in China continues to grow.
But this is not good news for the Chinese atheists who are troubled by all the religious activities (Christian and Islamic) now underway. Communism and consumerism are not necessarily winning all the hearts and minds in China.
To conclude, this controversial agreement is part of an international trend so easily overlooked in the complacent, agnostic West: the importance of religious belief still has political consequences. Religion may be a waning force in the West but it still has an impact in the other 90 per cent of the world's population.
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