President Xi’s Visit to Italy and China’s Relations with the Catholic Church

Photo: AP

No official meetings between President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis are on the agenda for the Chinese President's visit to Italy.

Neither party wants to jeopardize the agreement reached last September on the appointment of bishops and, however, as is well-known, both diplomacies like silence, long processes and longtime schedules.

Whoever remembers the old diplomatic precedents, also remembers that, just ten years ago, there was the possibility of another meeting between Benedict XVI and Hu Jintao in Italy for the G8 in L'Aquila. The Chinese leader, however, had to return quickly to Beijing, for a revolt in Xinjiang which was – as usual – more dangerous than we could believe.

From the outset, however, Cardinal Zen opposed the "parallel" appointment of bishops by China and Italy, as envisaged by the agreement currently in force between China and the Vatican.

It should be recalled that, from the beginning, Cardinal Zen who was Archbishop of Hong Kong until 2009, dismissed the agreement between the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, and the Chinese regime as an "incredible betrayal of Faith."

The old prelate was born in Shanghai in 1932, just a year after Mao Zedong founded a sort of Soviet republic in Jiangxi.

Nevertheless, the new strategies and opportunities or new contracts are beginning to take shape.

Since January 30 last, for example, Peter Jin Lugang has no longer been a clandestine bishop from Nanyang, while Cardinal Filoni has recently gone to Macao to inaugurate some new facilities of the Saint Joseph University.

In 2018, as many as 48,365 people were baptized in the churches and parishes of the People's Republic of China.

Currently, there are almost ten million Chinese Catholics.

There are also 104 dioceses recognized by the government of the People's Republic of China, with 30 national provinces.

Currently, the largest number of newly baptized people in China is found in the Hebei province, with 13,000 new people baptized in 2018, followed by Shanxi, with 4,124 new Catholics, as well as Sichuan with 3,707 new people baptized, and finally Shandong with 2,914 new Christians.

Even in Tibet, as many as eight baptisms were celebrated. In Hainan, there were 35 baptisms and in Qinghai 43. This applies even to the Islamic Xinjiang, with as many as 57 new Catholics.

On the point of law – and not only canon law – Cardinal Filoni requires that the members of the unofficial Chinese Catholic communities should not be forced to join the specific "Patriotic Association" – as is instead subtly envisaged by the Chinese government.

Nevertheless, for the Chinese government, this Patriotic Association is still a "people’s association" and hence has no ecclesial relevance. Moreover, participation in it is always "voluntary and never imposed."

This is what China, not the Vatican, maintains.

Nevertheless, the Vatican knows that in the areas in which – as we have seen above – there is a greater presence of new Catholic vocations, the People’s Association puts strong pressure to make priests and bishops be nationally independent "from the Vatican and from any foreign interference."

Without very strong nationalism, however, there is never any Chinese ideology – and certainly not the Communist one born from the Party founded in Shanghai in 1921.

Hence currently a political and cultural policy – and even a religious, cult and sapiential one, if I may say so – would be needed to make the Chinese regime understand that a Chinese Catholic is all the more Chinese precisely because he is truly Catholic.

Being Catholic is precisely the moment in which, as Saint Josemaria Escrivà de Balaguer used to say, we understand that "conversion is the matter of a moment, sanctification is the work of a lifetime."

And the sanctification of work and daily life applies to everybody, both believers and non-believers.

This means that the universality of Catholicism includes everything, namely being Chinese, Italian, Indian from America or anybody else.

For a Chinese, there is not being a Catholic outside being fully and absolutely Chinese.

Moreover, the current Chinese law does not oblige priests and bishops to join the Patriotic Association, while in all the areas in which the Catholic faith is more widespread, the Chinese government tries to push clerics to join the aforementioned Association, which not too implicitly proposes "independence" from the Holy See.

In Chinese politics, this is the heritage of a weak and divided Catholic Church, as experienced at the time of the "Chinese Rites Controversy," which started in the early seventeenth century under the pontificate of Gregory XV and lasted almost three centuries until 1939.

As you may recall, on the one side there were the Jesuits, who accepted and condoned the pagan practices and beliefs relating to the traditional cult of the dead according to the ancestral Chinese local traditions, but on the other there were the Franciscans and Dominicans, who thought that those practices – essential in the Chinese symbolism and tradition (even at political level) – should be radically changed in relation to the new, but perfect and unique, Catholic faith.

Hence, currently – and here the problem of its Communism is even marginal – China still fears to lose its "soul" and its profound identity, while the Catholic Church cannot certainly afford to be turned into a sort of Protestant Church, also subjected to the political power even in its Rites.

Obviously the penetration of the Protestant-style sects – often of an American tradition – could become dangerous both for the Catholic Church and, all the more so, for the Chinese government.

There is also the issue of the four priests of the unofficial community of Zhangjiakou, Hebei, who are still detained in a secret place by the People's Police.

According to Chinese Catholic sources, the issue began in late 2018.

Local governments’ factionalism and different CPC configurations in the various regions, as well as a proxy struggle between the Centre and the Periphery, are all factors which could explain the different approach of the various regional governments to the issue of Chinese Catholicism and its official presence in present-day Chinese society (and also in its the power system).

There is fear for a dangerous competitor in the power game, but it should be clarified – especially at a political level – that the Catholic person has not his/her own State, but is defined by the side of the currency in which Caesar is engraved.

There is nothing else – and a true Catholic is not allowed to worship anything else.

According to some Vatican sources, however, while Pope Francis did not mention the issue of the priests detained in Hebei, the Vatican's "policy line" could currently be to consider the Patriotic Association an organization to which the adhesion of bishops and clerics is fully optional.

Again in Hebei, a priest accused his Bishop, Monsignor Agostino Cui Tai, of wanting to "oppose" the Sino-Vatican agreement and even asked the police to arrest him.

Once again petty internal settling of scores, old tensions, as well as the usual problematic personal relations fit into the grand design of regularization of the Catholic Church in China, as certainly happens also on the government side.

However, all the Chinese bishops to whom Pope Francis removed excommunication are in favor of abolishing the "Church of Silence" and massively adhering, instead, to the Patriotic Association.

While recognizing the Chinese government’s full right to control the political activity of the Chinese Church, what about thinking about a very different instrument from the Patriotic Association, which is the obvious heir to an archaic Third International logic, together with the "United Front" and the other organizations that control political, religious and cultural heterodoxy in China?

This is a topic about which Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping could talk if they met in Italy.

Nevertheless, also for this negotiation by which China sets great store, there is the key issue of relations with Italy.

The Chinese media notes that currently, Italy has substantially adhered to the One Belt One Road project (OBOR), but that hopefully the agreement should be officially signed during Xi Jinping's State visit to the country.

Should this not happen, it would be an irreparable offense for China.

It should also be noted that the Chinese media’s attention is very much focused on the "Special Working Group on China," a structure recently organized by the Italian Government. In particular, China underlines the fact that both Greece and Portugal have already agreed to be part of the OBOR project, without the United States has had much to say about that.

Certainly, the strategic relevance of Italy in the Mediterranean is very different from Greece’s and Portugal’s geopolitical function for China only regards its Atlantic projection and its traditional ties with Western Africa.

For the Chinese media, however, Prime Minister Conte’s position is extremely important and, in all likelihood, China will enhance on the media the success it is already expecting to have in Italy.

According to Chinese analysts, the US nervous reaction to Italy joining the OBOR project stems from the fact that is a crucial and decisive country for the European Union, from both an economic and geopolitical viewpoint.

China is subtly trying to make us understand that while the United States finally wants to thwart the single currency and weaken the great network of duties and protections that the EU is essentially for it, China has no interest in undermining the EU nor certainly in plunging the Euro area into a further crisis.

Surely, according to Chinese analysts’ economic projections, the flow of goods and services going from Italy to the United States would decrease – albeit to the benefit of  China – while it is likely that, in the near future, the 5G issue will emerge again, and hence China could have some more chances.

Hence a clear loss of US relevance in Italy, which would give rise to a long series of very harsh countermoves by the United States.

Over 60 countries, including 12 European ones, have so far signed a Memorandum of Access to the OBOR network, in whatever manner.

We enter here directly into the project that Xi Jinping has recently outlined in the "Two Sessions" of the National People’s Congress, which are always held in the first two weeks of March.

In this year’s two sessions, President Xi Jinping has underlined that the limit whereby the President of the Republic and CPC Secretary, as well as the President of the Central Military Commission, shall serve no more than two consecutive terms has been removed.

The meaning is clear: my power lasts and is stable, possibly until 2027 – hence the many factional areas of the Party and the State would do well to conform again with the Party’s policy line and not to cause too much trouble.

President Xi Jinping emphasized once again the importance of the anti-corruption campaign, with 621 civilian officials and military officers punished in 2018 alone.

He also highlighted the new widespread presence of the Party’s committees in Chinese private companies – a presence that has now reached 70% of companies – as well as the huge reduction of NGOs operating in China from 7000 to just 400. Finally, there was the reaffirmation of the "mistakes" made by Western propaganda, as well as the reaffirmation of the pillars of the CPC doctrine and practice.

Certainly, this has much to do with the relationship between the Chinese government and the Catholic Church.

With specific reference to foreign policy, after the "two sessions," Xi Jinping currently tends to finalize as soon as possible the negotiation for a "Shared Code of Conduct" between China and the ten ASEAN countries, while the Chinese control over the Taiwan and Hong Kong seas is expanding.

It should be made clear that China will never conquer the Kuomintang island militarily, but it will wait for its internal political transformations to lead to a de facto reunification.

China also knows that an attack on Taiwan would enable the United States, in particular, to massively and harshly return to the Asian continental region.

As we will also see in Italy, for President Xi Jinping, China must define - as soon as possible – a "Chinese" model to resolve all current international tensions, so as to ensure that China can become a "contributor and promoter" of both global free trade - in contrast with Trump's US trade policy – and of multilateralism.

In the "Two Sessions," President Xi Jinping also proposed "Xi's five Study Points."

They concern above all peaceful unity, also referring to the fact that Xi in Chinese also means "to learn, to study, to put into practice."

As can be easily imagined, peaceful unity is directly related to the Taiwan issue – to which the rule of "one country, two systems" will soon be applied.

In Xinjiang, the Chinese government will soon accept a UN mission, provided it "does not interfere in domestic matters."