The election of Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope of the Roman Catholic Church, has far-reaching implications for the Vatican’s standstill with China over the appointment of bishops, experts say.
“The discussion will be much easier with the fact that there is a Jesuit pope,” said Rev. Mark DeStephano of the Society of Jesus, chairman of the board of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau. “Certainly [Pope] Benedict [XVI] tried, but it might be a little bit easier given our tradition in China.”
Unlike his predecessors, Francis is part of an order that advised Chinese emperors, brought Western sciences to China, and to this day operates cultural exchanges between China and the West, a track-record which experts say will help him at the discussion table.
“The Jesuits have been successful in China for 400 years,” said Rev. Michel Marcil S.J., executive director of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau and an expert on Sino-Vatican relations.
Pope Francis indicated a willingness to revisit the Vatican’s relationship with China, which severed diplomatic ties in 1951 but where Catholicism still thrives, during a foreign policy address on Friday.
Catholicism is part of a massive religious revival in China as many Chinese look to fill the spiritual void created by communism and materialism in contemporary China, said Carsten Vala, an expert on Christianity in China at Loyola University in Maryland.
Some Chinese even see religion as a ticket to success.
“These young and ambitious people may also view Christianity as the reason for the U.S. superpower status and think that China needs a strong religious culture to underpin their country's rise to power and influence,” said Vala.
There are currently an estimated 12 million Catholics in China, split between a state-run church and an underground community that recognizes papal authority.
The official church is the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which not only monitors Catholic religious activities for political compliance but also appoints China’s bishops, traditionally a papal authority.
The selection of bishops is one of two main points of contention between the Vatican and China, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters following Francis’ election.
“The new pope must cut the so-called diplomatic relations with Taiwan, recognizing the Chinese government as the sole legal representative of the whole of China and should not interfere, using the excuse of religion, in the internal affairs of the country,” Chunying said.
The Vatican has said it will cut ties with Taiwan if China stops appointing Catholic bishops without Vatican approval.
The CPCA appointed several new bishops in 2010 and most recently stripped Vatican-approved auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, of his title after he publicly renounced Chinese interference in religious life. He remains under house arrest.
Marxist politics and a cultural stigma of foreign imperialism that Christianity has carried for centuries have led to China’s refusal to recognize Vatican appointees, according to Marcil.
But the Jesuits have been able historically to avoid this stigma.
“We [the Jesuits] were successful in China because we came into China not as missionaries per say, but we came into China under the guise of intellectuals,” said DeStephano.
Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci became the first foreigner allowed inside the Forbidden City in the 16th century and the first to be granted burial ground on mainland China. His notable approach to mission work in China was to learn the language, translate Western works into Chinese, and incorporate Confucian principles into his Catholicism.
Subsequent Jesuits served as scientific and intellectual advisers to China’s emperors as late as the 19th century, said DeStephano. They brought trigonometry, geometry, and astronomy to China.
They operate to this day several higher-education exchanges in China for both Chinese and international students.
“We [the Jesuits] play the same role in a sense as we had in centuries before, this intellectual outreach to China,” said DeStephano.
According to Fr. Michael Maher S.J., an expert on Chinese history at Gonzaga University, Francis already has greater appeal to the Chinese in the Jesuit tradition. “I think the new pope’s concern for the poor and emphasis on simplicity will strike a chord in Chinese values.”
Others experts are more skeptical.
“China is not yet ready to have relaxation of controlling of institutionalized religions including Catholicism,” said Sister Beatrice Leung, the author of several books about the Sino-Vatican relationship.
Vala agrees, noting the recent elevation of President Xi Jinping.
“The dynamic between the Chinese government and the Vatican is more determined by the fact that a new leadership team took power in China in November 2012,” said Vala.
He added that Xi has already sent mixed signals as to his openness to reform.
However, Marcel sees a watershed moment for China and the Vatican, noting Xi and Francis were elected on the same day.
“For me, it is providential, a sign from God.”