There are none so deaf…….

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A personal reflection on recent events in Chinese Vatican relations

There are none so deaf…

Profound deafness used to be a regrettable lifelong affliction, limiting the potential of capable individuals and muffling into semi-coherence their interactions with the hearing world. In the 20th century, extraordinary progress in educational method gave the deaf person back her voice and produced a confident, self aware community no longer confined to the margins by illness or a quirk of early childhood development. Deafness, in the new dispensation, was no longer an “issue” but the distinctive badge of a “different but not deficient” community. In this century however, a game changing technical innovation has upset the certainties of these hard-won solidarities. Cochlear implants are reconnecting many profoundly deaf individuals to the world of sound and have made deafness a temporary, reversible condition (almost). To a generation for whom the issue of deafness had been address by successful workarounds, the removal of that identity marker is deeply disturbing.

The Other, not the issue is the problem!

These convulsions in the deaf world, difficult for the hearing person to fully comprehend is perhaps a good prism through with which to observe  the Underground “Church” in China in these days. One might expect that solving the thorny issue of relations between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China would be greeted with unreserved rejoicing by Chinese Catholics, especially by Underground Catholics, whom we often think of as being defined by their loyalty to Rome. In fact, the Underground community no longer sees itself as a brave group of Catholics within the Church, passionate about a serious tension in Church State relations; instead they have, through the experience of the last 60 years, become a more or less coherent ecclesial community; the Church, if you will, for whom opposition to the other Church, the one controlled by the Patriotic Association is the defining mark of its identify. The rapprochement signaled in recent days, may move us forward on the core issue but does nothing to address this identity question, and therein lies the problem.

The Church is Onenot the Other.

The split in the Chinese church arose in response to government persecution followed by strictly limited concessions in the 1950’s. The protracted campaigns against the Church in the early part of the decade eliminated formal resistance to state control. Then the creation of the Patriotic Association in 1957 split a weakened church into two factions: an official group which was herded into a rigid straight jacket of state control at all levels, and  an underground group (actually a patchwork of uncoordinated groups) , whose spirited resistance was fired by loyalty to the Pope and deep distrust of the Patriotic Association. Both camps suffered in the Cultural Revolution, but the two entities which emerged in the late 1970’s had distinctly different defining narratives. The Official group, operating within state defined limits, told only quietly, if at all, the story of their suffering at the hands of the state. On the other side, the narrative of bravery in the face of government persecutors (treacherously goaded on by the apostate priests or laity of the Patriotic Association) fitted more easily into the militant self-identity of the underground communities. The absence of any loud anti-papal rhetoric, (indeed the opposite) from the re-formed group of government sponsored bishops, further skewed the focus of opposition towards the rejection of the Patriotic Association and, by extension, the bishops under it’s thumb. Since the 1990’s, better communications has produced a more or less coherent domestic underground group which claims exclusively for itself all the attributes of the One, True, Holy Catholic and Apostolic  Church. It resists communion with any Bishop (Rome approved or not) operating under the auspices the Patriotic Association.

The voices from Western Christendom

Rome had tried to keep a representative in the People’s Republic of China after 1949 but failed. This, and the repression of the Church in the Soviet block predisposed the Holy See to view Chinese issues as a continuation of its European problems. Early papal statements encouraged resistance to the new regime in China but never resulted in the Holy See declaring the Patriotic Association, or rather those bishops controlled by it, as schismatics. By the end of the 1950’s communications between Rome and Chinese Catholics had all but ceased and did not seriously resume until the 1980’s. At first, Rome’s renewed contact with Chinese Catholics displayed a sympathy for the loyal Catholics and, at best, a coolness towards the group under the Patriotic Association. Later the Holy See developed a more nuanced approach, acknowledging the validity of the sacraments administered in open churches, affirming that Catholics could receive these sacraments without sin (a much milder position than those of some underground Chinese bishops) and even declaring that was only one Church in China, albeit one divided internally. Efforts at resolving the issue of Church-State relationships have been sustained but, ’till now, unsuccessful. There have been repeated missteps on both sides, especially in the area of Church leadership, the logjam which now seems to have been successfully resolved. Rapprochement with the Chinese State has not been without significant dissenting Catholic voices, both in the Vatican and without. The dissenters seem not to belong to a coordinated group, and vary from diehard anti-communists in the Cold War model, to senior figures who have deeply held reservations about the sincerity of any Chinese government assurances, as well as idealists inspired by the fidelity of a martyr church. These voices are not without real influence, but to date have slowed down but not deflected the long term direction of Roman policy. Rome wants the issue resolved so that the Church has a means of better communicating its message to a quarter of the world’s population.

The law of unintended consequences

While it may not have been obvious that an implant would be a divisive development for the deaf community, the same could not be said about the impact of a breakthrough in Church State relationships on the Underground group in the Chinese Church. The status quo ante had favored, though not affirmed, a exclusive “Church” identity for the Underground Catholics. Thus the Underground group confidently relating to the Overground bishops as de facto schismatics. When Roman strategy moved toward engaging with these “traitors” and even recognizing most bishops’ legitimacy, it caused consternation in the Underground ranks. With validity no longer in dispute (Rome had spoken definitively on that matter), double somersaults were performed to avoid conceding ground without formally disobeying the Holy Father. The restoration of Communion was avoided if the flimsiest of canonical loopholes could be found. Episcopal jurisdiction was rejected if Overground leaders did not reach the bar of personal holiness set by the Underground confessors witness the faith. Despite the failure to observe accepted ecclesial norms (or even by times ordinary Christian charity) Rome, perhaps aware of the identity problem, played the long game and indulged the obfuscations. Significant actors, from within and without, frustrated this subtle approach. Internally, senior Church figures publicly criticized those close to the Pope for the ill considered strategy. Externally, government officials mischievously undermined the credibility of those bishops with joint recognition by both Rome and Beijing. The end result was an Underground group both convinced of its loyalty to a Pope who is badly served by his advisors and certain of the depravity of an Overground group which is schismatic in all but name. To such an entrenched group, signals of rapprochement between Rome and Beijng are, quite simply, incomprehensible. The latest breakthrough may “solve” the issue which has prevented good relations between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, but it does nothing to address the identity questions of the community which has come into existence precisely because of that issue.

If its not broken…..

The scientists who brought us cochlear implants produced an amazing technological achievement; but success came with a philosophical conundrum. To benefit from the “fix” requires a deaf person both to acknowledge that they are in fact deficient and not just different after all, and, if that were not bad enough, to begin a disorientating adjustment to the unfamiliar world of sound. The one is a humiliation and the other is a challenge. For the Underground Catholics of China, accepting that the proposed new relationship between Church and State is actually a fix is hard enough, but even if accepted, adjusting to the post reconciliation reality will be tortuous, protracted and messy, with both saints and sinners being much in evidence. Let there be no mistake, this rapprochement between Rome and Beijing will be a wonderful achievement (if it actually happens this time!) but it is naive in the extreme to imagine that the situation it will create is automatically better than one it replaces.

We can only hope that He who prayed “may they all might be one” will keep an attentive ear on the negotiations, a restraining hand on the critics and a watchful eye on the painful coming to unity of what is, ultimately, His Church in the People’s Republic of China.


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