Papal mission to build trust in China
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - The names of popes are policy statements on the governance of the Roman Catholic Church, and it is no coincidence that the new pontiff has chosen to call himself Francis, the name of saint of Assisi in the 12th century, but also like the great Jesuit Francis Xavier, who went on missions in Asia and China in the 16th century. It was Francis Xavier who sent to China the famous missionary Matteo Ricci, the one man who almost managed to convert China, if his efforts were not rebuked by Rome.
China, concerned about the concept of "soft power," is paying great attention to the immense and unparalleled soft power of the
Church, as this are the true "armies of the pope."
Roman Catholicism is the single largest religion in the world and has by far the most influential spiritual apparatus. Every week, millions of the 1.3 billion baptized Catholics (equal to the entire Chinese population) repeat the rite of adherence to their faith and their church by attending mass. The Vatican also can count on millions of volunteers; hundreds of thousands of priests, deacons, and officials of various kinds; and thousands of bishops in every corner of the planet.
The Pope has influence over hundreds of millions of Protestants and a small but also significant number of Orthodox Christians, though they were born or raised in defiance of Rome. He also commands respect in the Muslim countries, divided among thousands of mosques and mullahs, but in total with perhaps 1.5 billion followers.
Of course, today more than ever, this immense power, stretching more than an empire, fears the many direct or indirect signs of deep crisis or split, which are material issues and not just questions theology. There are spiritual issues, but also very practical ones, and the Holy See is well aware of both elements. After all, it is a religion that has consciously worn the garments of the late phase of Roman Empire and made them sacred. Beijing knows that the Church is well aware of its power. And paradoxically, the many global problems of the Catholic Church, bring the Vatican to pay a closer attention to China, as we shall see.
The first major problem weighing on the papacy that is about to begin is that of child molesting. It is a deep issue of morality, and therefore threatens the overall credibility of the work of evangelization, but also more worldly financial concerns. The American Church, the most under siege by the allegations, provides about 40% of the funds for the Vatican, although it is home to perhaps only 5% of Catholics overall.
In the past years, US President Barack Obama's administration has threatened to remove the time limit for prosecuting parishes and dioceses guilty of covering up molestation by priests. In fact, in the case of allegations of sexual harassment, the diocese has always chosen to pay any price necessary to avoid public trials that could humiliate the Church.
If you remove the time limits for prosecuting the allegations, those allegedly molested 20, 30, or even 40 years ago could implicate virtually all of the American dioceses and cause the physical and spiritual bankruptcy of Catholicism in the US. American Catholics could have no more churches where to pray and would not pay a dollar to Rome - thus leading in practice to the Catholic Church worldwide going bust. Today as never before, the issue of sexual misconduct of the priests gives the US administration unprecedented leverage over the Church. There are similar problems in Europe, where churches are empty of followers, and thus deprived of alms, contrary to America where churches are still packed.
To escape this blackmail as quickly as possible, the Church should develop "alternative markets." This is then a challenge in both the short and long terms. Latin America, Africa, and Asia in particular have distinct challenges. Latin America, with many former colonies of ultra Catholic Spain and Portugal, is being infiltrated by Evangelicals, who are making many converts in lands that were once exclusive preserve of Rome. For some Catholics this evangelization is another side of the ancient conspiracy by US Protestants to fan the flames of controversy over sexual misconduct and reduce the number of catholic followers globally. In this case, less of the faithful directly translates into less money.
Things are better in sub-Saharan Africa, the continent where Catholicism is growing fastest, with over 170 million members today. But even here the problems are enormous. Contributions from Africa, poor today and in the near future, are far from a replacement for the decrease in donations from America and Europe. Furthermore, the Church in Africa, which has spread in areas that are deeply animist, has all kinds of problems, from priests who are often married with children to some kind of priest-sorcerers.
Relations with the Muslim world are in some ways the best they have been in centuries: there is no frontal opposition and no holy war, as it was often the case in past centuries. However, Christians there are constantly expelled in a practice that almost amounts to religious cleansing. Meanwhile, rich sheiks and mullahs finance mosques in Europe and America, converting new believers, supporting Muslim migrants to Europe and America and spreading Muslim views in areas once exclusively Christian. What to do with this new dual challenge of Islam is a pressing question for Rome.
This brings everything back to Asia, where problems are also both short- and long-term. The Asian economies run better than in any other part of the world, 60% of the world's population lives in the region, and will soon produce most of the wealth on the planet. For the Catholic Church to be here now, when it is under siege in every other part of the world, could mean the difference between staying relevant in this century and slipping into rapid decline.
Here the Church is weak and faces greater opposition than elsewhere, in the form of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and local governments without any real reverence for the throne of Peter. The numbers are lowest, less than 5% of the local population, a proportion already distorted by the fact that half of that is in the Philippines. Without the contribution of the Philippines, the%age would be around 2%.
On the continent, according to Yan Kin Sheung Chiaretto in China and Prospects for the New Evangelization, it is hard to plan for a rapid program of evangelization. The only real opening is in China, where despite the official proclamations there is in fact more religious freedom than elsewhere, Buddhism is very weak, and Chinese have a hunger for new religions. The Protestants proved this since, without any special effort, they captured about 10% of the population within a decade.
Catholics, on the other hand, are certainly less than 1% - maybe around 0.5% - and that number is extremely divided, with almost no evangelization. China is the second-largest economy in the world, has no problem with accusations of sexual misconduct, it has concerns about the Muslim world similar to those of the Church - and it might be the real solution to the overall future of Catholicism. China needs to understand the world and to be understood by outsiders. Rome could have an unmatched role in integrating this vast country into a world dominated by the US and Europe.
Without China, in short, the Church has to defend itself from all sides and may see all its problems multiplied.
For the Church, once the overall defense was at Lepanto, now it is in Beijing. Without Rome, China is rendered much weaker among nations. This should bring the two together. But broad concerns rarely work in a world where attention is focused on small details, and the crowd of details is theologically also often considered the work of the devil, a work of separation.
Perhaps a the first Jesuit Pope will be able to bridge the gap, and China's new president, Xi Jinping, elected just hours before the Pope, could see in this coincidence some yuanfen, destiny bringing the two sides together.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org