The Inquirer yesterday reported that the Vatican had objected to the ordination in China of a local bishop without a papal mandate. This was followed by the resignation by another bishop from the government-sanctioned Patriotic Catholic Association (PCA) in open defiance of authorities, and he has not been heard from since.
Bishop Joseph Yue Fusheng was ordained Friday in the northeastern city of Harbin without Vatican blessings, and Rome responded by immediately excommunicating him. As if in response, the Rev. Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who was just installed auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, announced that he was resigning from the PCA. To the resounding applause of his congregation, he declared: “In the light of the teaching of our mother church, as I now serve as a bishop, I should focus on pastoral work and evangelization. … Therefore, from this day of consecration, it will no longer be convenient for me to be a member of the patriotic association.”
I had thought that post-Mao China is no longer leery of religion and, on the contrary, has discovered the role of faith in holding society together against the vagaries of materialism and profit-seeking. Perhaps what Beijing wants to ward off is the prospect of a Jaime Cardinal Sin in the making. The multitude at Tiananmen didn’t seem to need a Cardinal Sin, but what if?
Over the past years, I have been part of a team of law professors from Europe and the United States who have been, merely to use a metaphor, spreading the gospel of religious freedom in Asia. I have made some surprising discoveries.
First, when it comes to the pervasiveness of religious schools in the education of children, the Philippines is actually more similar to European countries than it is to the United States, yet our church-state doctrine is virtually copied from American constitutional law. We have largely outsourced elementary and high school education to private, typically Catholic, schools. Thus, in these “denominational” or “sectarian” schools, we find the typical problems of religion-based disciplinary action on students. They allow enrolled students from other religions to “opt out” of religious instruction. And they allow the teaching of their own religion as articles of faith teachable only by their own believers, rather than as an academic discipline teachable even by nonbelievers.
In contrast, on this point, it is China and the United States that are similar, in that basic education is mainly state-run. In their schools, there is no such thing as religion-based infractions of discipline. There is no need to give parents the option to “opt out” of religious instruction because there is no religious instruction. Instead what we have is an “opt in” clause for parents to allow their children to be taught religion “without additional cost to the government.” And especially for college and university students, they maintain the distinction between “teaching religion” as done by proselytizers (or “confessional teaching”) and “teaching about religion” as done by faculty members—not necessarily the faith’s own believers—in divinity schools.
Second, it seems that Beijing sees religion as a rival ideology, to be contained, domesticated and subordinated to the official state ideology. The irony is: What exactly is its state ideology? Certainly not Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung Thought. I suspect the Filipino Maoists would outdo their comrades in Beijing on ideological purity.
If China has unofficially adopted laissez faire in economics, why not in ideology, too? If precisely what their one-party state fears most is the rise of a countervailing group, shouldn’t the multiplicity of religions precisely guarantee that the Communist Party remains paramount over all the fragmented groups, religious or not, and that the more the proliferation, the more entrenched the Party?
In contrast, we Filipinos have assumed that it is possible “to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” We adopted the liberal duality that secular and religious world views can coexist, both affirming in their own way a communal identity larger than the self, the first in the public sphere, the second in the spiritual world.
Third, perhaps what truly riles Beijing is that Vatican-appointed bishops are not beholden to the Party, the way even big-time bureaucrats bow before middling party secretaries. In other words, it is not ideology but organizational loyalty that matters. Perhaps Beijing has a point. It took me a while to grasp the military-like discipline and hierarchy of the Catholic Church that starts at the apex with the papacy at the Vatican.
Thus seen, an independent Chinese clergy poses a secular threat to the Communist Party no different from a Cardinal Sin to a Marcos. But again there is one element that makes an independent cardinal a bigger threat in Manila than a renegade bishop in Beijing. It is that in our system, the cardinal’s power over his flock is especially protected by the Constitution. It relies upon a belief system beyond the reach of worldly powers, to quote the philosophers, epistemologically privileged, reachable only by revelation rather than by man’s reason. There is no such privileging in the Chinese setup. For them, it is just another body of beliefs and the fact that it purports to speak to an invisible god makes it no more a threat than an economic system run by an invisible hand. Why be so guarded with such humdrum perils?
In a Beijing church, I noticed they were big on stopping worshippers from stepping on the pew’s kneelers. There were big signs on the wall, and watchers patrolling the pews. It felt like Big Brother was watching, even if it wasn’t him I came there to talk to.