SINOGRAPH Papal vote takes a Chinese hue
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - The conclave that opens in a few days for the Catholic Church to chose a new pope is a historic occasion for China and Asia. This time among the candidates in position for the papacy is a Filipino of Chinese origin, Luis Antonio Tagle, Cardinal of Manila.
Vatican experts say that his inclusion is intended to make the Church look truly universal, with a gesture toward Asia, where Catholics are a small minority. Similarly, after the death of Pope John Paul II, the Indian Cardinal Ivan Dias was included among the eligible candidates for the papacy. In both cases, it was a minimum gesture required, yet it showed a growing trend in the Holy See.
Dias didn't get the papacy but became the powerful Prefect of
Propaganda Fide, the third- or fourth-most important position of the Holy See. In the same way Tagle, even if he doesn't ascend to the most sacred position, could have an important post in Rome in the future. But the question now goes beyond the facade. The developments are unprecedented because for the first time in the history of the Church, a man of Chinese descent could head the largest religion in the world and a true Chinese, Cardinal John Tong from Hong Kong, will take part in the conclave, bringing Beijing objectively at the forefront in the meeting that will elect the next Pope.
To China, the Catholic question is arcane and in many ways incomprehensible. The Catholic Church has for many years represented a specter: a political force that, under a Polish Pope, shook Poland and thus undermined the foundations of the Soviet empire. Then it took on another dimension, as the Church supported the failing Castro regime in Cuba, which without papal support would probably already be overthrown. So the prospect, however distant, of a pope of Chinese descent - or more realistically, a Chinese senior official in the Curia - raises questions about how he will act toward Beijing.
Catholics in China are a tiny minority, less than 1% of the population, and therefore the Church cannot play the role it has in Catholic-majority countries such as Poland or Cuba. Yet a Church with a positive or negative attitude toward the Beijing government may have an impact on the delicate chemistry of international politics, where China is already in a difficult position, and whose fast growth is complicating China's ties with in countries near and far.
There is a precedent. Former Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong, who sometimes had a confrontational attitude with authorities of the territory, had a very significant negative impact that went far beyond just the 300,000 Catholics in Hong Kong (less than 5% of the local population). Conversely, the more conciliatory attitude of his successor, Cardinal Tong, is helping relations with the administration of the territory.
It is not clear how China can take advantage of - or could be disadvantaged by - the more focused attention from the Vatican, although this time, China appears not very attentive towards Rome and as if it is being dragged into the conclave. Conversely, it's clearer that Rome has its sights set on China. With over 20% of the world's population and a leading role in a region that is home to 60% of the world's population but only 4% to 5% of all Catholics, China is the challenge to the long-term survival of the Church.
If Catholics do not get a firm foothold in China within a few years, Rome might decline in its spiritual influence in the world. As international companies declare, you need to be in China or in 10 years you will be irrelevant globally. So in Rome there is a clear and strong sense of urgency about China or Asia, although no one knows how to design a real strategy of evangelization.
In any case, however, there is a difference of interests. Beijing is marginally and almost reluctantly interested in Rome. Rome, however, knows that China is a priority, possibly the number-one priority. This disparity of interest objectively places the Church in a difficult position. While the Vatican normally does not have to explain to anyone what it is and what it does, in Beijing it must because the Chinese do not understand it and are overwhelmed by other priorities such as the internal social and economic issues and the increasingly more complicated web of international relations.
In theory, the Church could aid on both sides, helping the West become less suspicious of China's growth and acting as a cultural mediator between China and a world that do not understand each other. But so far, these are only vague hypotheses. They will, however, be on the table of the next pope, whatever his origin.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org