SINOGRAPH Beijing needs a papal
line By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - It is very likely, although not
certain, that in the next 10 years, during the
tenure of Chinese president Xi Jinping, Pope
Benedict XVI (born in 1927) will pass away. If so,
the Catholic Church, the largest unitary religion
in the world and by far the most influential, will
choose another pope.
Pope Benedict could
certainly live to be 100, and thus the choice of a
new pope could occur during the tenure of a future
Chinese president, but that is unlikely, despite
advances in modern medicine. Being a pope is an
extremely stressful and very much full-time job.
Few have lived to be 90 in this busy role,
notwithstanding a special relationship with God.
Then a new pope could well be elected while Xi is
president of China. This will be a religious
selection, but few can underestimate its political
Long gone are the days when
Stalin mockingly asked the number
of divisions of the pope.
Stalin's successors learned that the Catholic
Church was a major force in toppling the communist
regime in Poland and thus triggering the
bankruptcy of socialism in Eastern Europe. At the
same time, the Church has also played a role in de
facto propping up Fidel Castro's red regime in
Cuba. Without the pope's blessing, Castro -
groomed as a boy by the Jesuits and allegedly now
secretly re-converted to Catholicism - would
perhaps have already been replaced by someone
sponsored by the US government.
reasons, all of the major world governments are
prepared to follow and possibly even influence the
choice of the new pope - all but China, that is.
China does not have diplomatic relations with the
For Beijing, the issues of the
Catholic Church so far have been mired in petty
tussles over the choice of this or that bishop in
the tiny Catholic community in China, less than 1%
of the population. The 2005 papal elections were a
warning shot. Then, Pope John Paul II passed away
suddenly and his funeral became an important stage
for Taiwan's then-president, Chen Shui-bian.
China, without diplomatic ties with the Vatican,
could not attend.
Chen wanted to use the
funeral, with heads of state and government
leaders present, to increase his international
profile and underscore his plans for a unilateral
declaration of independence of the island,
formally part of one China.
scrambled to limit the damage of Chen's attendance
and played down the political significance of the
ceremony in Rome. China's efforts were successful,
but they occurred in a non-hostile international
climate, when America and its allies were
concentrating on Iraq and Afghanistan. Now things
are very different and not so favorable for China.
The whole world now has its eyes fixed on Beijing,
and the absence of the world's number-two power
from a similar funeral could be a major
embarrassment. And it is not only that.
very recent Italian novel, Le mani sul Vaticano
(Hands on the Vatican) by Vatican expert Carlo
Marroni, details how the choice of a new pope is
at the crossroads of international politics and
the secret dealings of the Curia, the powerful
Catholic central bureaucracy. Unlike many similar
works of fiction, the book portrays the real
mechanisms and likely machinations within the
Vatican walls. The author is a true top expert on
the subject after years of accurate reporting on
Moreover, he is detached,
cold, but not hostile, and does not fall into the
easy and often ludicrous patterns of depicting the
Church as a gang of power-thirsty old crooks.
Marroni is careful in realistically showing the
pitiless power struggles in the Church, but
recognizes also the constant religious sentiment
and genuine drive of those priests who, most of
the time, maintain their faith in their God. The
novel is set at the time of the death of a pope
and election of a surprising next pope.
Does the novel suggest that the pope, aged
86 and allegedly in poor health, is about to pass
away? It sounds like blasphemy. Nobody can say for
sure, but this book along with the recent
Vati-leaks prove that the campaign for the
election of the next pope has already started.
Here, all countries are preparing - except for
China. The question really is: even without taking
into consideration the Taiwan issue, can Beijing
afford to not follow the choice of the most
influential religious person in the world?
After all, Catholics make up less than 10
million in a population of almost 1.4 billion.
Even in Asia, the region where Chinese interests
are most entrenched, Catholics are not much more
common. Except for the Philippines, where the
Spanish domination left a firm Catholic majority,
people loyal to the pope are an insignificant
minority that are even less relevant in the
domestic political debate as most Catholics are
quiet, law-abiding citizens.
picture could be inaccurate and incomplete. The
issue of religious freedom is crucial in China's
cultural and political debate with the West, and a
dialogue with Rome, home of the most widespread
religion in the West, is essential for China's
integration into the world, dominated by Western
rules and a Western mindset. Moreover, if the
Church is true to its pacifist spirit and wants to
avoid or prevent a war (hot, cold, or soft)
between the West and China, it has to help foster
a cultural dialogue with China.
come through the establishment of relations
between the Holy See and Beijing. For this,
perhaps at the end of the day, the largest
obstacle so far has been differing approaches to
creating ties between the Vatican and China. In a
nutshell, Beijing favored the idea of first
normalizing ties and then solving the many
problems on the ground; the Vatican would rather
solve the problems first and then normalize ties.
Without a compromise, things have not moved much
in the past few years.
Yet things are
rapidly changing in China and Asia. Conversions to
Christianity are spreading in China - more than in
other Asian countries. Some estimates put
Christians in China at over 130 million, about 10%
of the population. Even rejecting China's old
temptation to control religion, no state can
afford to completely ignore religion. Liberally
religious America has been long suspicious of
"papist" Catholics and has a history of thwarting
Catholic development at home for fear of political
interference from Rome.
Beijing has a
history of heavy-handed intervention in religious
affairs, such as with the selection of the Panchen
Lama, Tibet's second-highest spiritual leader, or
by not allowing the return of the Dalai Lama,
Tibet's top religious leader. As such, can China
really think of flouting the succession of the top
religious figure of the world? In fact, the 2005
election of Pope Benedict XVI proved that to be
The Catholic world is bitterly
divided and its legacy in its traditional Western
areas is tainted by the recently uncovered spate
of sex scandals. They were somehow tolerated until
recently, and now are bitterly despised and draw
immense public outrage. The Church may want to
find unity again and open up new "markets" of
souls. These are only in Asia, the new continent
of Catholic conversion and the dynamo of the world
economy, which could help also to offset the
present Vatican financial difficulties caused by
the Western economic crisis and having to cough up
damages to prevent humiliating trials for child
molestation in America and Europe.
Asian pope - perhaps a Filipino of Chinese origin
or a Vietnamese pope, representing that growing,
lively segment of the world's population - could
be a choice to consider. It might at once unify
the Church on the old continents and launch it in
a region that is home to 60% of the world
population, and perhaps only 10% of its 1 billion
Can Beijing afford to
ignore all of this? Can Rome afford to do without
China, home of over 20% of earthly souls, who
drive of the world economy and form the heart of
the Asian continent? Can the Church be truly
universal without China? And are the Church's
problems in China greater than the ones it has in
many Muslim countries, which have normal ties with
the Holy See? Perhaps both Rome and Beijing will
have to consider these elements, as a pope who has
worked so hard and so patiently to improve ties
prepares for his succession.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be reached at [email protected]