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