Covering the tense Vatican-China dance

It was hours before the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese government and I was, with a circle of other journalists from around the world, attending a conference on journalism and religious liberty. It was a wild and frantic time to be in what I am told is almost always a wild and frantic city.

There were many memorable discussions that night. But the remark I will always remember came from a major publisher in Hong Kong, who observed that there were really only two people in the world who were truly feared by the leaders of the mainland Chinese government — Bill Gates and Pope John Paul II. Why? One refused to cede control of almost anything that was happening in the world in terms of information and business. The other refused to cede control of the spirit and the conscience.

I thought of that while reading reporter Mark Magnier’s excellent Los Angeles Times update on the tense courtship that is under way between the Vatican and the principalities and powers in China. The story does underplay the crucial Protestant “house church” side of the religious-liberty scene in China, but that’s to be expected since it is not the focus of this lengthy report.

What stands in the way of better Vatican-Chinese relations? The usual stuff, sad to report:

In talks in Rome and Beijing, the two sides have outlined a range of possible compromises to normalize relations that seem to overcome the main sticking points, said Mario Marazziti, spokesman for the Rome-based humanitarian group Community of St. Egidio.

The talks suffered a setback when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian attended John Paul’s funeral, but Marazziti said he believed it was only temporary.

The main elements of a compromise are now in focus, religious leaders and analysts say. The Vatican would probably end its official recognition of Taiwan and Beijing would allow Rome greater say in church affairs.

Cuba and Vietnam, also ruled by communist governments, may provide a model, experts say. For instance, instead of naming a bishop, Rome could offer three candidates, letting Beijing choose.

Church officials said many of Taiwan’s 300,000 Catholics might feel betrayed by any downgrading of relations between Taipei and Rome. But Msgr. Ambrose Madtha, the Vatican’s charge d’affaires in Taiwan, said the possibility had been floating for years, and many are used to the idea.

This kind of reporting is so difficult, for journalistic reasons that transcend shackles on reporters attempting to do private interviews with real people in China. Face it — studies show that average Americans don’t want to read much about foreign affairs and many editors, well, just don’t get religion. Thus, it is hard for reporters to sell quality MSM coverage of religious issues on the other side of the planet.

Thus, it is important to pay attention when quality stories on these issues appear — such as this report by Magnier. Bravo.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • jjayson

    Despicable. What a terrible way to memorialize a pope that fought against communism and for democracy. JPII is rolling.

  • holmegm

    The “spirit and the conscience” link is malformed (it points back to getreligion).

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Fixed. Thanks, holmegm!

  • holmegm

    Glad to be of service :) This is a good story.

  • John

    If the Vatican downgraded its recognition of Taiwan or compromised or its authority to name Catholic bishops in China, it would be a grave mistake. The Chinese Communists would not see these as mutually helpful compromises and means of achieving harmony, but as victories to be followed up with additional provocations. To the leadership in Peking, Vatican recognition of Taiwan is nothing more than another diplomatic barrier to their plans to seize that island. Meanwhile, a Vatican compromise on the naming of Bishops (so similar to the investiture controversy of 1075) would only placate the Chinese government long enough for them to decide where next to procede with nationalizing the Church in that country.

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