Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Religious Stockholder-Test for Wells Fargo: Confronting Mediocre Accountability

Orienting executive compensation to accountability is easier said than done. For example, it might be supposed that the cause of accountability was aptly served by John Stumpf’s forfeit of $41 million in unvested stock when he resigned under pressure as Wells Fargo’s CEO because of the bank’s systemic overzealousness in signing customers up for unwanted services. Unfortunately, he “realized pretax earnings of more than $83 million by exercising vested stock options, amassed over his 34 years at the bank, and receiving payouts on certain stock awards.”[1] In other words, the man who presided over unethical business practices at the expense of customers received double that which he was forfeiting. How can accountability have any meaning against $83 million? This figure connotes reward rather than punishment. Tim Sloan, who succeeded Stumpf as the bank’s CEO, received compensation in 2016 of $13, up from the $11 million in 2015. Interestingly, it may have been religion to the rescue.

[1] Stacy Cowley, “Wells Fargo Leaders Reaped Lavish Pay Even as Account Scandal Unfolded,” The New York Times, March 16, 2017.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

On the Vatican’s Conflict of Interest Regarding Accountability on Sex-Abuse

Integrity is arguably essential to the credibility of religious functionaries—even and especially those with considerable organizational power. So it was significant that Marie Collins, whom Pope Francis had appointed to the Vatican’s commission on sexual abuse by clergy and herself had been a victim of such abuse, resigned on March 1, 2017 due to “fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.”[1] Notably, the commission suspended Peter Saunders a year before, “after he accused the panel of failing to deliver on its promises of reform and accountability” even including recommendations that the Pope had approved.[2] What is the basis of the problem? I submit that the conflict of interest that is inherent in having the clergy of a religious organization hold each other accountable is, much like industry self-regulation, culpable in this case.
For example, “a tribunal to hold negligent bishops accountable recommended by the commission and approved by the Pope in June 2015 was never implemented,” Marie Collins said in March, 2017.[3] She had no idea whether guidelines issued by the Pope to discipline bishops who had covered up abuse were in force. The Vatican also refused to give the commission an office and staff, and a “Vatican department was refusing to cooperate with a recommendation that all correspondence from victims of clerical abuse receive a response.”[4] The abuse could sadly have been too widespread, in which case the roadblocks in the Vatican are particularly damning.
The integrity and related credibility of the Roman Catholic Church was on the line. “I find it impossible to listen to public statements about the deep concern in the church for the care of those whose lives have been blighted by abuse, yet to watch privately as a congregation in the Vatican refuses to even acknowledge their letters!,” she said. Moreover, the “reluctance of some in the Vatican Curia to implement recommendations or cooperate with the work of a commission when the purpose is to improve the safety of children and vulnerable adults around the world is unacceptable,” she added.[5] The Pope himself had lessened punishments for some pedophile priests—one of whom would be convicted by an Italian court for “sex crimes against children as young as 12.”[6]
To be sure, Marie Collins did admit, “The pope does at heart understand the horror of abuse and the need for those who would hurt minors to be stopped.”[7] Yet that administrative clergy at the Vatican were ignoring his decisions on recommendations points to an institutional problem—that of a conflict of interest in having clergy police themselves. That the sexual abuse could become so widespread as to compromise the very credibility of the Roman Catholic Church suggests that the Vatican’s Curia, or government, was not in an intra-clergy accountability mode. In other words, we cannot expect a tight-knit club to self-regulate. In this case, the sense of brotherhood among the clergy is too strong; hierarchical distinctions and the related power differential is no match.
The implication is that the governments of countries should take more of a role in policing priests. Rather than viewing them as organizational functionaries tied to a Roman jurisdiction, they should be viewed as residents of the country in which they live. Society should not expect the Vatican to come down on its own. Moreover, no religious organization can realistically meet this expectation. In other words, the world has been asking too much of the Vatican. That Bishop Law of Boston, for example, was given a plush appointment in the Vatican after being forced out of his bishopric in disgrace is just one indication that the sort of accountability that Marie Collins and Peter Saunders would not happen inside the Vatican—the clergy's own answer, in other words, was no. It is unrealistic to force people in power to do something they simply refuse to do; external means are needed in such a case. Actions speak louder than words, and through its non-actions the Vatican itself had spoken. This is not to say that it cannot or should not be blamed. In fact, we should expect that its integrity and thus credibility rightfully take a hit, but unfortunately what is right often does not materialize, even from the pews.

[1] Elisabetta Povoledo and Gaia Pianigiani, “Abuse Victim Quits Vatican Commission, Citing ‘Resistance’,” The New York Times, March 1, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Biblically-Based Investment Funds: A Matter of Priorities

Is it biblical to say a Christian can serve both God and money? In the Gospels, Jesus speaks to this point directly; it is not possible. In early 2017, Inspire Investing established two new exchange-traded funds having a “biblically responsible” approach to investing—meaning that they would avoid buying shares in companies that have “any degree of participation in activities that do not align with biblical values.”[1] That such activities include even tolerance for gay employees raises the question of just how practical an evangelical investment strategy is after the U.S. Supreme Court made gay marriage legal in all of the 50 republics making up the U.S.

The full essay is at "Biblically-Based Investment Funds."

1. Liz Moyer, “Alongside Faith in Investing, Funds Offer Investment Rooted in Faith,” The New York Times, February 28, 2017.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Kierkegaard’s Socratic Task: Delivering a Christianity of Inward Faith

Kierkegaard learned from Socrates the value of (being) the single individual, especially in the subjective pursuit of truth. Before Socrates, truth (and morality) was to be found externally, in culture and tradition, and thus in an objective sense. Kierkegaard learned from Socrates the value of the individual’s subjectivity in the pursuit of truth; that truth can be internal without devolving into relativist nihilism. The Danish philosopher appropriated what he had learned from Socrates methodologically in the self-declared “Socratic task” of auditing “the definition of what it is to be a Christian.”[i] Behind Kierkegaard’s authorship is “the task of becoming a Christian.”[ii] This applies to helping others—as a Socratic midwife!—to become Christian and, relatedly, to Kierkegaard’s own willingness accept the inexpressible grace of being sacrificed by the Danish Church—those self-declared Christians actually oriented to money. Kierkegaard ironically exclaims, “I am not a Christian.”[iii] Such irony! “I do not call myself a Christian,” Kierkegaard wrote strategically, “but I can make it manifest that the others are that even less.”[iv] Herein lies the acceptance of being sacrificed in the interest of truth. Kierkegaard observed that “’Christendom’ lies in an abyss of sophistry that is even much, much worse than when the Sophists flourished in Greece.”[v] The success of comfortable pastors justifying their earthly wealth theologically under the auspices of the Prosperity Gospel renders the Socratic Kierkegaard still relevant today.[vi] Fortunately, Kierkegaard would assure us that the individual Christian can still find truth within rather than outwardly comprehending the doctrines that the pastors, whose claim to being Christians is dubious at best, claim to know. In this essay, I show how Kierkegaard appropriates Socrates’ method in service of this point. The Danish philosopher gained from his Greek model the tools with which to undercut the doctrines as knowable (by the theologians and pastors), so he could privilege becoming and being a Christian as a matter of personally discovered inward faith yet without positive epistemological content getting in the way.
For Socrates, rather than demonstrating a thesis, the result to be achieved is “purely negative . . . no positive definition has survived the critical examination.”[vii] Socrates, the gadfly of Athens, picks apart Euthyphro’s presumed knowledge of piety while claiming to be ignorant, and yet ironically it is Euthyphro’s knowledge that is found wanting. To be sure, Socrates leaves nothing positive (i.e., aporia), and yet, ironically, this is wisdom! Kierkegaard takes on Socrates’ role as the single individual who does not fit into the crowd, insisting that he himself is not a Christian as he reduced the leaders of the crowd to aporia. The Danish church functionaries must have viewed this project as a provocation.
Socrates’ privileging of the subjective of the individual over Greek tradition resulted in the charge of “corrupting the youth.” Likewise, Kierkegaard’s question, “what does it mean to be a Christian,” was provocative to his contemporaries (e.g., pastors and theologians) for whom there was no reason to ask the question; they were satisfied with the externals.[viii] Indeed, Kierkegaard wrote of the late Bishop Mynster that he had been all too satisfied in his paid position to qualify as an “authentic truth-witness.”[ix]
The subjective quest for truth inwardly is inherently threatening to the self-appointed guardians of doctrinal truth because the mind and heart of the single individual is beyond reach. The individual Christian can believe that Jesus is her savior as a matter of faith and yet not be able to communicate the paradox even to her pastor, who is ensconced in the universal below the individual of faith. Kierkegaard argues in Fear and Trembling that the absurd of faith is above the universal (e.g., the ethical, the rational, language, etc.). Put another way, an individual taking the god’s commands on faith is above being able to comprehend them. The self-contradiction from the divine-commands revealed to Abraham cannot be made sense of, much less communicated to the crowd.
Communicating faith would distort its inner nature, as language is of the universal, so clerics and theologians cannot get at the faith held by individuals. Therefore, theologians cannot compare what an individual accepts in the inwardness of her private heart to the value of comprehending doctrines, so no judgment can legitimately be made. This can only be frustrating to clerics for whom the subjectivity beyond reach of other people can only be perceived as an obstacle to be overcome. Whereas the typical pastor looks to the collective of his congregation, Kierkegaard esteems the single individual above the crowd. Similar to ethics to Socrates, inward faith to Kierkegaard cannot be delegated to the collective but must reside within the individual.[x]
Emphasizing the element of subjectivity that Socrates introduced into the field of ethics, Kierkegaard claims “there is something infinitely important and valuable in each individual, but to get at this one must occasionally get away from the crowd. . . . one must focus instead on one’s own inwardness and religiosity.”[xi] This subterranean ground of faith is unfathomable by the theologians whose doctrinal knowledge—a corruption—is subject to the irony and negative aporia that Kierkegaard appropriates from Socrates.
In Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard applies Socrates’ method of aporia to the doctrine of the Incarnation. On the chopping-block are the “Sophist” theologians who have claimed quite astonishingly to know the absolutely different unknown, which cannot be known even though reason is drawn to the frontier. Socrates claims in Phaedrus that he does not contemplate the gods because he is trying to know himself, and he is ignorant of himself. Kierkegaard sees in this a paradox: namely, the desire “to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.”[xii] Specifically, “(t)he understanding wants to grasp what is unknown, and is constantly frustrated when it encounters what is unknown. This unknown must be something that is absolutely different, since if it were similar to us, we could know it by recognizing certain aspects that we’re familiar with. The human mind can’t grasp what’s absolutely different.”[xiii] If Kierkegaard, and by implication, Socrates are correct, such knowledge cannot possibly be requisite to salvation, for such knowledge is impossible. Put another way, if the god extends beyond the limits of human reason and perception, then the divine must eclipse the grasp of the human mind, and must instead be grasped inwardly by the human heart in faith that surpasses all understanding.
In the doctrine of the Incarnation, the god-man is “the unity of God and an individual human being.”[xiv] This involves an unresolvable paradox: the eternal and infinite god becoming temporal and finite. “The God-man is the paradox, absolutely the paradox. Therefore it is altogether certain that the understanding must come to a standstill on it.”[xv] How is it that a particular human being can be the god? Doesn’t this ignore the abyss that separates Creation from its Creator? Socrates was “on guard duty,” Kierkegaard points out, “keeping watch so that the deep gulf of qualitative difference between [God and mankind] was maintained . . . that God and man did not merge in some way . . . into one.”[xvi] So unlike Hegel, Kierkegaard claims the contradiction in the absolute paradox of the god becoming flesh as Jesus cannot be mediated in the sense of being synthesized within a higher organic structure. The paradox must simply be accepted on faith in the heart of the individual Christian—something beyond the reach of the cleric and thus inherently suspect.
Similarly, in Stages on Life’s Way, Kierkegaard is amazed that theologians think they have understood the doctrine of Jesus forgiving sins. “Surely,” Kierkegaard has Socrates say, “what you are asking about is a difficult matter, and it has always amazed me that so many could believe that they understood a teaching such as that; but it has amazed me even more that some people have even understood much more.”[xvii] For instance, theologians think that the post-forgiveness state is identical to the initial immediacy between the god and humans, and yet how do those Christian “thinkers” know this? The faith grasped inwardly in the heart of the individual is on much more solid ground—on this ground I will build my Church, Jesus says of Peter’s inward faith not built on understanding. Doctrines such as the Incarnation and the Forgiveness of Sins “are to be accepted in inwardness and passion” rather than understood and comprehended.[xviii] Hence Kierkegaard applied Socratic aporia to any positive content of the understanding regarding the theological doctrines.
So—and this is extremely relevant in churches today!—rather than delivering expository sermons, pastors should be conversational, Kierkegaard insisted, as the Socratic dialogues are. Like Socrates and Kierkegaard, the sermonizer should be a midwife of sorts, rather than a source of doctrinal “knowledge,” urging parishioners to look inward for faith that surpasses all understanding. A good pastor should take look back to Socrates as “the occasion for the student to arrive at the truth.”[xix]  Socrates doesn’t teach the truth.  Likewise, Kierkegaard points out that Jesus “is the occasion for his followers to learn the truth.”[xx] So Socrates’ notion of midwifery can be useful for contemporary clerics. For Socrates, the idea is that “though his questioning and conversation, the individual is led to find the truth within himself. . . . So also with the sermon, the pastor instead of simply preaching some external fact or bit of knowledge, encourages the individual members of the congregation to find the truth of Christianity in themselves—each in their own way. Every follower of Christ must appropriate the Christian message for him or herself.”[xxi] A preacher can only go so far externally, and each Christian is thus tasked with having to search his or her heart for glimpses of the truth held inwardly.
In conclusion, the truth according to both Socrates and Kierkegaard is something inward—something that a person must appropriate for himself. Because the truth is presumed to exist, and is the object of the quest for faith, the subjectivity does not devolve into relativism and nihilism. In other words, truth keeps subjectivity from becoming its own anchor. Truth is above the universal, which includes ethics and even language; hence, to Kierkegaard, “Christianity is concerned with the inwardness of each and every individual; it’s about the passion of the individual in the face of certain ideas that are paradoxical, absurd, and contradictory.”[xxii] Reasoning can only go part of the route, and thus doctrinal Christianity too falls short. Using Socrates’ method, Kierkegaard wanted to “undermine the different positive doctrines about Christianity” in order to return to the paradox, absurdity, and contradiction that are intrinsic in Christianity “as a sort of inward disposition that focuses on the individual subject.”[xxiii] This point is relevant to clergy today, as sermons can indeed be reoriented to honor and facilitate (as a midwife) the individual’s inner birth of faith. In other words, the Socratic Kierkegaard connection is indeed still relevant, as Christianity still has its externally and collectively oriented doctrinal truth-sayers who presume even just that truth can be known, even at the expense of the single individual's leap of faith in accepting, like Abraham, the absurd and also the absolutely paradoxical; both of which transcend the limits of human cognition and perception and thus cannot be comprehended.

[i] Soren Kierkegaard, The Moment, in The Moment and Late Writings, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans.  (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 341
[ii] Soren Kierkegaard, The Point of View: On My work as an Author, the Point of View for my Work as an Author, Armed Neutrality, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 55.
[iii] Soren Kierkegaard, The Moment, in The Moment and Late Writings, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans.  (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 340.
[iv] Ibid., 341.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] On the historical shift in theological interpretation from anti-wealth to pro-wealth, see Skip Worden, God's Gold (Seattle, WA: Amazon, 2016).
[vii] Jon Stewart, University of Copenhagen, Lecture (2016).
[viii] Peter Sajda, from Jon Stewart, University of Copenhagen, Lecture (2016).
[ix] Soren Kierkegaard, The Moment, in The Moment and Late Writings, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans.  (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).
[x] Peter Sajda, from Jon Stewart, University of Copenhagen, Lecture (2016).
[xi] Jon Stewart, University of Copenhagen, Lecture (2016).
[xii] Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 37.
[xiii] Jon Stewart, University of Copenhagen, Lecture (2016).
[xiv] Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans.  (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 82.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 99.
[xvii] Soren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 482.
[xviii] Jon Stewart, University of Copenhagen, Lecture (2016).
[xix] Ibid.
[xx] Ibid.
[xxi] Ibid.
[xxii] Ibid.
[xxiii] Ibid.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Being Partisan in the Pulpit: Going the Extra Mile

The Johnson Amendment, which became law in the U.S. in 1954 and was named for Lyndon Johnson, then a U.S. Senator, “is a provision in the tax code that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from openly supporting political candidates. In the words of the tax code, ‘all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”[1] I submit that it is in a cleric’s interest to expand this prohibition to include advocating for (or opposing) particular public policies. This general principle would of course be subject to exceptions in which a proposed or enacted policy is strongly anathema to the religious principles of the given religious organization or religion.

Generally speaking, it is in the medium- and long-term interest of both clerics and their religious organizations to resist the temptation to preach along partisan lines. That such preaching is a temptation should signal the presence of a bad odor, and yet it is almost always overlooked or dismissed out of hand. Besides turning off members who are good fits religiously speaking but do not agree with the particular political ideology being preached, the stain of partisan ideology can make the cleric seem self-obsessed. In other words, that such preachments are convenient to the speakers themselves can easily be translated into self-idolatry in religious terms.

One cleric, not of one of the Abrahamic religions, in my hometown once told me that according to his religion, certain social structures are sacred. In particular, only those sociological/economic/political systems that are egalitarian and thus just in this way can be sacred. The use of this overtly religious term takes human artifacts to have divine status. By implication, the social, economic, or political ideology in play is also divine. I submit that such a position counts as self-idolatry—the worship of the human as itself being sacred, or divine. Put another way, if the societal systems we design are sacred, then the makers themselves must also be sacred—essentially little gods admiring their handiwork. I submit that when the cleric preaches on socio-economic and political policies or systems thereof as sacred, he is engaging in self-idolatry. Religion for him has become too comfortable, too easy. Absent is the wholly other, or absolutely different, quality of the divine, which is transcendent as well as immanent. Declaring a human artifact to be sacred eclipses the transcendent.

Unfortunately, the temptation to make the preachment as fitting as possible to the preacher’s own ideology can easily exploit good exceptions, where the public policy is anathema to a major religious teaching. Roman Catholicism’s doctrine of humanae vitae (i.e., on the sanctity of human life) arguably justifies preaching in opposition to abortion and capital punishment. To be sure, the doctrine’s salience relative to the Incarnation and the Resurrection can be subject to critique, such that the political opposition may actually be ideological in nature. In other words, the doctrine of the sanctity of human life—which does not imply that human beings are sacred!—could be used as a subterfuge allowing for the true, subterranean motive: political influence in line with a particular moral/political ideology.

Even if the allowance of good exceptions has a tendency of being exploited, it is indeed possible that public policies run contrary to significant religious beliefs, and such opposition is legitimate in the pulpit.  The task for the conscientious cleric writing a sermon is to be on guard—like the disciples presumably on the night Jesus is handed over to the Roman guard—for the slithering motions of self-idolatry under the subterfuge of pious religion.

[1] Randall Balmer, “The Peril of Being Partisan at the Pulpit,” Stars and Stripes, February 7, 2017.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Pro-Wealth Buddhist Temple in Thailand and Pro-Wealth Christianity: Is Religion Inherently Weak?

In Thailand, Phra Dhammachayo, the head of the Wat Dhammakaya Buddhist Temple—Thailand’s largest—could be heard, as of 2016 at least, exhorting non-monk meditators, “Be rich, be rich, be rich!”[1] This pro-wealth message, with its “endorsement of worldly comforts,” has attracted worshippers even as it has “unsettled the government and the Buddhist hierarchy.”[2] Indeed, the top body of Buddhism accused him of heresy—a charge you don’t typically hear in that religion—and stripped him of his religious title. Yet his popularity at Wat Dhammakaya was undiminished. It is no wonder the Temple’s popularity continued to grow, with cash machines placed near a meditation room—the machines’ screens declaring, “Shortcut to making merit.” By giving money, and even credit-card points, to the temple, a Buddhist’s merit can be enhanced. Other things equal, the additional good karma results in a better reincarnation in the next life. The worshippers, or more strictly speaking, meditators, at the temple could presumably be rich in this life and be born into a better life next time around simply by practicing Buddhism.

Of course, the Buddha taught that desire is the source of suffering. Clinging to things, such as wealth, can thus be expected to lead to unhappiness. In Christianity, suffering itself is not necessarily to be avoided, as “picking up your Cross” in following Christ involves voluntary suffering. This in turn is based on agape, or self-emptying, love. Were Phra Dhammachayo a Christian rather than Buddhist priest, his vulnerability would be lapsing adherents into the sin of greed. Indeed, as the Christian attitude toward riches swung from anti-wealth to pro-wealth from the Commercial Revolution in the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the risk was precisely that the religion would redeem the sin of greed itself, essentially incorporating it as a virtue.[3] One priest and theologian in the Italian Renaissance explicitly wrote that love of gain is good. Lest that be thought to be the high-water mark of the pro-wealth position in Christianity, the Prosperity Gospel, which teaches that God rewards true belief (i.e., that Jesus Christ is the redeeming Son of God) with material wealth rather than salvation alone, became popular in pockets of evangelical Christianity in the twentieth century and into the next. Norman Vincent Peale and Joel Osteen are two cases in point; no hint of the camel that could not get through the eye of the needle.

Certainly religions must contend with external, worldly pressures to conform to the convenient in the here and now. Whether a religion’s life-cycle necessarily involves caving into the pressure is a question worthy of scholarly attention. In the case of Thailand’s largest temple, the “economic boom of the 1980s created a well-to-do middle class for whom moneymaking rivaled Buddhist tradition as a core value.”[4] Something was needed to bring the two together. However, the craving for money that moneymaking tends to involve is inimical to the Buddha’s diagnosis of suffering and his prescription—enlightenment. So bringing the proverbial oil and water together can be regarded as an oxymoron at best. Perhaps it can be said that holding a religion to its intrinsic otherness is fraught with human nature.

[1] Seth Mydans, “Parsing Buddhism in a Shrine to Abundance,” The New York Times, December 21, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Skip Worden, God’s Gold (Seattle, WA: Amazon, 2016).
[4] Seth Mydans, “Parsing Buddhism in a Shrine to Abundance,” The New York Times, December 21, 2016.

Friday, December 30, 2016

A Self-Governing Chinese Catholic Church: Conflating Statecraft and Religious Authority

In late December, 2016, as the Chinese government was negotiating a deal to improve relations with the Vatican, Yu Zhengsheng, a senior Communist Party leader, “endorsed the notion of a self-governed Chinese Catholic church.”[1] The key point, I submit, hinges on governance. In what sense does governance apply rightfully (or fittingly) to a religious organization? This is a question to be put both to the Chinese government and the Vatican.
Yu Zhengsheng meeting Chinese Catholic religious authorities (Source: Yao Dawei/Xinhua)
From one standpoint, the sort of governance that naturally applies to states seems less than fitting applied to religious organizations. Most obviously, a religious organization and a nation-state are of two distinct domains. More subtly, the sort of authority wielded by a government can, if applied within a religious organization, undercut spiritual authority and spirituality itself among the faithful. Rendering the governance of a religious organization as including that of a state, such as the Vatican is, naturally incurs the sibling rivalry with other countries. Put another way, were the Roman Catholic Pope not a head of state, Chinese officials might have felt less need of a self-governed Chinese Catholic Church. Yu Zhengsheng would have been less likely to urge that spiritual leaders in China “adhere to the principles of independence and self-management.”[2] Put another way, a more spiritual and less political church would be less of a threat to any government, including that of China. Spiritual leadership from the Pope would be more likely to pass as if through a semi-permeable membrane into China.
From the other standpoint, the sort of governance that naturally goes with religions is less than fitting applied to governments of countries. Yu Zhengsheng’s claim that spiritual leaders should work to promote the “good virtue of patriotism” crosses a line because religious organizations are not in the domain in which patriotism exists. For Catholic priests to urge patriotism would undermine the credibility of their spiritual guidance. Given the Vatican’s own status as a nation-state, the question could be raised: Which patriotism—of China or the Vatican? Hence the Vatican’s involvement in governmental governance naturally invites jealousy in other governments.
Perhaps both statecraft and religious authority are vulnerable to overreaching. Perhaps problems would be simpler were people to apply self-discipline to keeping within their respective domains. The Chinese government should not ask Catholic clerics in China to advance Chinese patriotism and the Vatican should get out of the nation-state business. Keeping to two very different sorts of authority can go a long way to minimizing conflict and category-mistakes.

[1] Javier C. Hernandez, “Catholic Churches in China Should Be Independent of Vatican, Official Says,” The New York Times, December 30, 2016.
[2] Ibid.