China’s state newspaper Global Times published a feature Wednesday heralding in a new era in relations between Beijing and the Vatican, suggesting that Pope Francis, as a Jesuit who “believes he has a good understanding of Marxists,” presents a golden opportunity for China to coopt Catholicism in the country.
China and the Vatican have been at odds for decades. An official split occurred in 1958, when the Vatican rejected the Chinese “Patriotic” Catholic Church as illegitimate, as it refused to take orders from the pope. Currently, “Patriotic” Catholicism is one of five legal religions in China, alongside the Three-Self Patriotic Church (Protestantism), Taoism, Islam, and Buddhism.
The Global Times noted that the government of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping had become increasingly comfortable with broadcasting television and film that included Catholic themes, including a documentary on the life of Pope Francis, particularly after reports surfaced in January that the Vatican would consider accepting the legitimacy of Communist-nominated “patriotic” priests.
“In a change from the past, topics related to Catholicism have appeared frequently on China’s mainstream media platforms in recent months, which experts say is a good sign for China-Vatican relations,” the Times reported, adding, “Experts say Pope Francis’s Jesuit background and Latin American origins also played roles in his commitment to improve relations with China.”
One of those experts, a scholar identified as Yang Fenggang, told the Global Times that Pope Francis—coming from Latin America, the cradle of Marxist-inspired liberation theology—had friendlier sensibilities towards communist China than his predecessors.
“Pope Francis is from Latin America, and believes he has a good understanding of Marxists because of the liberation theology that was popular in Latin America, and he thinks the Chinese Communists are perhaps similar to the Marxists in Latin America,” Yang said.
The piece also argues that Pope Francis’s background as a Jesuit helps relations with China. China’s first brush with Christianity occurred with the Nestorian sect, initially exiled from Europe over their belief that Jesus was both a man and an incarnation of God. Nestorianism became derided in the West as a heresy that denied Mary’s status as the Mother of God, but rather saw her as the mother of the man, Jesus. Modern Nestorians deny that Nestorius, for whom the faith is named, actually rejected Mary’s divinity. A Nestorian missionary named Alopen is believed to have first evangelized China in the seventh century.
The faith died out following the Tang dynasty’s collapse, however, leaving a void eventually filled centuries later by a Jesuit missionary named Matteo Ricci. Ricci succeeded in mainstreaming Catholicism in large part through advocating that the Vatican must accept local culture and customs and adapt Catholic rites, though not the core tenets of the faith, to the locals. Ricci famously published a book in Chinese script titled On Friendship that translated common sayings and traditional Western advice for a Chinese audience.
“Pope Francis is the first pope from the Society of Jesus,” the Global Times noted on Wednesday. “Famous Jesuits include Matteo Ricci, and they are renowned for being flexible in their approach to evangelization and deft at communicating with high-level Chinese officials throughout history.”
The Global Times belies Chinese government hopes that Pope Francis will prove as accepting of communism, a Western ideology that invaded Chinese political thought centuries after Christianity first arrived in the mainland, as Ricci was of traditional Chinese customs.
“Pope Francis has showed enormous commitment to improving China-Vatican relations since his papacy started in March 2013,” the newspaper notes. “Talks between the Holy See and the Chinese government were reinitiated and have been going on and off for years, according to officials from the two sides.”
The Global Times‘ promotion of cooperation with the Vatican comes a week after the “Patriotic” Catholic Church began disseminating instructions to its illegitimate clergy to implement Xi Jinping’s “Sinicization” program – a nationwide effort to make all religions more “Chinese” by forcing them to adhere to the Communist principles developed in western Europe. According to a source speaking to UCA News, the government hopes to “complete the Chinese-style socialist road within five years” for Catholics. “Even if they [the “patriotic” clergy] do not get approval from the Holy See, they will still get trust from the government.”
The move follows reports early this year that the Vatican had begun negotiations with Beijing to begin accepting illegitimate clergy despite their lack of ordination from Rome. China is reportedly seeking to receive approval from the Vatican for priests that it has appointed in appreciation for their loyalty to communism.
China’s legitimate clergy reacted to these reports with outrage. Cardinal Joseph Zen, China’s highest ranking Catholic prelate, published an open letter in January accusing the Vatican of “selling out” its subjects to a repressive atheist regime, lamenting that his status as a “pessimist” in negotiations with China “has a foundation in my long direct experience of the Church in China.”