What will Hu Jintao’s trip to Italy mean for Chinese Catholics?

Posted: August 25, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Politics

Francesco Sisci, author of the piece on Catholicism in China that I blogged about last month, wrote in the Asia Times Online (the article was published on July 1):

Next week, Hu Jintao starts an official visit to Italy, the first for a Chinese president in 10 years. As with his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, Hu will have a chance to look first-hand at what was for millennia – from the Magna Grecia in the south to the Roman Empire to the Renaissance – the cradle of Western civilization. He will thus get a glimpse at the origin and development of the process of modernization – or “Westernification” – that China is embracing at the moment.

This, in a nutshell, is the significance of Hu’s trip to Italy. It means very little and very much: There is no huge political agenda but enormous philosophical significance. It would be a tourist trip for many heads of state, but for the People’s Republic of China (PRC), where the search for and fine-tuning of new theories is the soul of the political process, this could be a crucial inspirational stepping stone as the country prepares for the next generation of leaders and the political agenda of the 2012 Party Congress.

Italy managed to mold together modernization and tradition, and this is something that China has been trying to do on a grand scale in recent years, blending its past with modernization and also making the necessary leap to future developments.

In this situation, as with Jiang, Hu will come as close as possible to breathing the air around one of the pillars of Western civilization – the Papacy, the Holy See, the Vatican, the headquarters of the largest unitary religion in the world. For centuries, the Vatican has been part of the very way of thinking in the West. The idea of balancing powers came from the Roman republican tradition of two consuls, the democracy of the Greek city-states, preventing a concentration of power; it continued with the balancing of clashes and friction between the emperor and senate during the Roman Empire, and for centuries it was embodied in the talks and dialogue between European kings and the popes – the political and religious powers of the Western world.

One of Sisci’s points in his previous article is that China and the Vatican may be on the verge of better relations as the Chinese government considers the possibility of the Catholic Church as a nation-strengthening social force.  The government also seems to like the idea of a Chinese Christian church united under common Catholic teachings and hierarchy.  It will be interesting to see how much the Vatican and the Chinese government will accommodate each other.  I’m not sure that a meeting of China and the Vatican would be quite the defining East-West meeting that Sisci believes it will be, but it would be quite important in its own way as it would certainly affect the course of Christianity in China.

Sisci also paints a portrait of two Chinese Catholics whose careful negotiation of the political and religious realities of Communist China might make Chinese-papal collaboration possible.  Anthony Liu Bainian “was instrumental in shaping the Catholic Patriotic Association,” the government-approved Catholic group, which eventually helped to persuade the government that Catholics could be good citizens.  At the same time, the Patriotic church allowed for underground Catholics to attend seminars that kept the underground church connected with orthodox Catholic theology.  On the other hand, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun was an underground leader who pulled off the balancing act from the underground side, neither opposing nor supporting the government in everything.  Check out the article for more about these men’s stories.

I don’t know if Zen and Liu should be commended or criticized for their caution in dealing with the Chinese government.  Sisci argues that they enabled the church to survive and thrive in China.  As a non-Catholic who lives in one of the easiest countries in the world to be a Christian, I don’t think it’s my call.

Hat tip: Joel, who shared with me this Spengler post that included the link for Asia Times Online article

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