Column: The Church and China

Looking resplendent in their Michelangelo-designed ceremonial uniforms, the praetorian like Swiss Guard took their place in the history books by being involved in the world’s largest funeral to date. Such was the influence of the Pope, whose death brought nearly 200 world leaders together. They ranged from the head of the Palestinian Authority to the Secretary-General of the United Nations to the Commissioner of the European Union and the President of the United States. Presidents and Prime Ministers, Kings and Queens gathered together with mourners at Saint Peter’s Basilica, where in a somber ceremony Pope John Paul II was laid to rest together with his predecessors. This was indeed one of the defining moments of the year. It was fitting that for the funeral of a Pope who had spent most of his life traveling around the world and spreading his message, the world had come to him to lay his body to rest.

However, the funeral was not without controversy, or politicking. The attendance of President Chen Shu-Bien of Taiwan irked the communist leaders of the People’s Republic. As the Vatican is the only European country to recognize Taiwan, such a visit was deemed appropriate. However, the sight of President Chen side by side with so many world leaders such as President Bush, Prime Minister Blair and Secretary-General Annan was somewhat of a major public relations coup for the leader. Yet on the other side of the Taiwan Straits, a mainland government silently fumed. Despite having nearly 13 million Catholics within its borders, the People’s Republic of China was noticeably absent from the proceedings at the Vatican. This absence sums up a major challenge faced by the incoming Pope: reconciliation with China.

With more than a billion people, China is undoubtedly a major player in today’s world. It was Pope John Paul II’s dearest wish to reach out to the Catholics of China, who were persecuted and forced to worship in either state sanctioned churches that acknowledged Beijing as the ultimate authority, or in underground churches. While there has been some recent speculation that the Vatican was ready to switch recognition, especially because of the comments made by the Bishop of Hong Kong after the Pope’s death, the presence of President Chen at the Vatican for the funeral has made that extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future.

With the election of a new Pope, the reconciliation between the Vatican and China will be more likely than during the time of Pope John Paul II. The reason for the tense relationship was the attitude of Pope John Paul II toward communism and the fear that the Beijing government had of his influence. After seeing the impact he had on his homeland of Poland during the solidarity movement and the later fall of the communist government there, there is little wonder that the Chinese government feared his influence on Catholics. Furthermore, the Catholic Church has had a long history of supporting democratic movements in the region, such as in the Philippines during the Marcos era and even more recently in East Timor when it was annexed by Indonesia. With this sort of track record, for being known as the ‘Democracy Pope,’ and his uncanny ability to reach to people regardless of faith, creed or language, Pope John Paul II unwittingly facilitated the deterioration of relations with China.

This does not mean to say that the next Pope should turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses by the Chinese government for the sake of better diplomatic relations. The next Pope should stay the course forged by his predecessor, and use the pulpit of the Holy See to be the moral guide of the world, and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. Yet at the same time he should facilitate communication and openness, and perhaps the best way of doing this with China, is to prove to the Chinese government that they have nothing to fear from him, or his influence. By doing so, he will actually help to foster a more open dialogue with the Chinese government and indirectly help the human rights situation in China. With a Chinese government that has a greater respect for human rights, the freedom of worship for the Catholics in China is almost guaranteed.

-The writer is a junior majoring in international affairs.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.