Two events last week were particularly significant. One was the international conference on the hundredth anniversary of the Chinese Council, with the presence of the bishop of Shanghai, Shen Bin, unilaterally appointed by the Chinese government and only later recognized by Pope Francis. The other was Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez’s trip to Cairo, Egypt, to speak with Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

How are these two events related?

Both, in their way, represent one of the facets of Pope Francis’ pontificate. In both cases, there is the impression that a sort of Catholic “cancel culture” is underway. That is, there is a need to reconstruct history to overcome the abuses—real or supposed—of the past and, at the same time, look to the future by pretending that everyone is okay with losing ties with the past.

Bishop Shen Bin’s presence at the international conference organized by the Dicastery for Evangelization was notable precisely because the bishop was arriving in Rome at the Vatican for the first time since Pope Francis remedied his unilateral appointment by the Chinese government.

Shen Bin is not just a bishop ordained in 2010, with double recognition from Rome and the Vatican. He is a bishop who is nevertheless organic to the Chinese Communist Party, presides over the Council of Chinese Catholics Bishops, a state body – and carries forward the vision of sinicization promoted by the Chinese Communist Party.

In his speech at the conference, Bishop Shen went so far as to say that the Patriotic Association, the state body in which bishops in China must register, did not want to change the doctrine of the Church but rather wanted the Chinese Church to develop according to a Chinese model. In short, the Patriotic Association should not be considered as State interference in the affairs of religion but rather as a reaction to a colonial era. At the same time, the Church must be Chinese and develop according to the model of modern China, i.e. the model designed and put into execution by Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, balanced this intervention with a speech full of chiaroscuro, defending the choice to deal directly with the Chinese government but at the same time underlining that the first condition for a bishop to be capable of acting with integrity in any local context is that the essential bond with the Successor of Peter – the pope – be deeply rooted and carefully respected. There is no room for nationalism in the Catholic Church, nor with national versions of a Church, but instead, there is room for inculturation and understanding.

The Chinese Council had been convened in 1924 by Archbishop Celso Costantini, then papal legate in China (though he would later serve in the roman Curia and become a cardinal and Apostolic Chancellor), precisely so that the colonial mentality of the Church in the so-called “foreign missions”  – often under the control of political protectorates – would have in China their autonomy and liberty to operate.. It was the extraordinary vision of Pope Benedict XV, who had described it in the Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud. Cardinal Parolin remembers this well.

However, this previous colonialist mentality also becomes an excuse, in many of the interventions, to justify the Chinese state’s aggressive entry into religious affairs. As if a colonial and post-colonial past to be eradicated were a justification for violations of religious freedom or would, in any case, make the situation better.

The work of breaking with the past was already underway, and the arrival of the Chinese Communist Party did not change this change, nor did it change the face of the Church. Instead, he forced the Church to make compromises and often persecuted her.

How does this relate to Cardinal Fernandez’s trip to Egypt?

Fernandez went to Egypt to re-establish theological dialogue with the Coptic Orthodox Church. There had been an excellent level of theological-ecumenical relations, but Fiducia Supplicans —the declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for the blessing of irregular couples – interrupted them.

Fiducia supplicans was an inadmissible statement for the Coptic Orthodox Church, especially regarding blessings for same-sex couples. Thus, the Coptic Synod – a real governing body in the Coptic Church — decided to suspend the theological dialogue, despite the excellent relationships of friendship and closeness between the See of Peter and the See of Mark, which culminated with the inscription in the martyrology of the 21 Coptic martyrs killed in Libya by ISIS.

The Coptic Church issued a statement highlighting how Cardinal Fernandez reiterated the Church’s teaching on homosexual unions, that there was an explanatory note on Fiducia Supplicans, and that the Dignitas Infinita declaration  made very precisely clear the Roman position on homosexual couples.

The Coptic Orthodox Church accepted the explanations, but the statement does not represent a re-establishment of theological dialogue. The Holy Synod will have to decide, and it will also have to be seen whether the explanations have been satisfactory.

The problem is that by attempting to subvert the pastoral practice that had always led to a healthy discernment for informal blessings, Fiducia Supplicans has somehow broken a balance that held doctrine and pastoral solicitude together, not only in the Catholic Church. As in the case of the Chinese Council conference, there was the desire to move beyond a past in which mistakes had been made. Only, the problem was that this past was considered “a past of errors” that could be freed from with a new approach. 

In the dialogue with China – which the Holy See will continue next week in the Vatican, talking about the agreement on the appointment of bishops – as well as with the Coptic Orthodox Church, the need to go beyond a past in which mistakes made risk turning into suicide. A suicide that arises from the idea of reaching out to everyone, but which leads the Church to lose its identity and the faithful to have various prejudices about what the Church has been – prejudices that are sometimes unjustified.

It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis will make his own thoughts clear on these matters, as he did with regard to women in the diaconate, when on CBS television in the United States. His dry “No,” when asked about the subject testifies to the fact that Francis can change the narrative about the past and reposition the Church without touching doctrine, and also that he doesn’t really worry too much about who may be disappointed or how much.

Lately we’ve found ourselves witnessing the narrative established by Francis swing, pendulum-like, in both directions. The problem: It’s only narrative.

The lines are between a colonial Church, a slaveholding Church on the one hand, and on the other a Church that includes everyone, appreciates indigenous peoples, and is at the service of all.

There needs to be more balance between these two positions, one that will only come when there is an overall vision that allows us to look at history more clearly.

If the Church doesn’t offer that vision, who will?


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