Sino-Vatican Relations and the Intermediary Roles of Hong Kong and Macau

Beatrice Leung. Europe and China. Volume 1. Hong Kong University Press, 2012.

In 1987, Sino-Vatican negotiations started with the aim of normalizing the disrupted diplomatic relationship between the Holy See and Beijing. These negotiations have yet to come to an agreement, with Beijing and the Vatican continuing to pursue incompatible objectives. Changes in the international arena and China’s rapid economic growth have given both sides an entirely new impetus for the negotiations. This chapter explores the recent shift of paradigms in Sino-Vatican relations and emphasizes the roles played by Hong Kong and Macau as conduits for the ongoing negotiation process.

Sino-Vatican Relations: Background and Orientation

Sino-Vatican diplomatic relations were established in 1942 under the nationalist government. They broke down in 1951, when Mao Zedong emphasized class struggle and intolerance towards ideological issues. Religious idealism, including Catholicism, had to give way to the dialectical materialism of Marxism-Leninism and Maoist thought. Moreover, the Vatican represented the ideology which Mao intended to purge. Therefore, it became impossible to have talks on the normalization of the disrupted Sino-Vatican relationship. It was only after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms of 1978 that China began to emerge from its isolation. New possibilities for dialogue subsequently emerged, with the objective of establishing a Sino-Vatican concordat. In November 1987, Zhao Ziyang, then secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), met Manila Cardinal Jaime Sin in Beijing. They agreed to let their aides thresh out more details to initiate formal Sino-Vatican negotiations, giving new hope for a Sino-Vatican rapprochement. However, in over two decades of negotiations, little has been achieved and little rapprochement is foreseeable in the near future.

From the beginning of the negotiations both parties have been pursuing conflicting goals. The Vatican—the only European state not to have full diplomatic relations with Beijing—aims at normalizing its ties with China and seeks a normal development of the Catholic Church in China with minimal political interference. Beijing aims at further isolating Taiwan in the international community, by demanding the severing of Taiwan-Vatic an diplomatic relations, so as to further isolate Taipei and to enable cross-Straits negotiations for unification under terms favorable to Beijing.

During the years of informal and formal talks between Beijing and the Vatican, the following issues dominated the negotiations: the arrangement to share power between the Vatican and China for appointing Chinese bishops; the method for unifying the official and non-official sectors of the Chinese Catholic Church; the ways and means whereby the Papal representative in Beijing relates to local bishops in the future; and the ways for moving the Papal Nunciature in Taipei to Beijing with minimal disturbance and embarrassment to Taiwan.

In August 1999, two new requests from Beijing added extra complexity to these unresolved problems. Beijing sought the transfer of the ecclesiastical administrative power from local bishops to the civil authority, and the selection—by Beijing—of bishop candidates, with the Vatican validating government appointments. The Vatican could not accept these suggestions, according to Articles 333, 377 §1, and 377 §5 of Canon Law (Codex Iuris Canonici, 1983), simply because this would imply undermining papal authority. China’s suggestion was not for a joint Sino-Vatican appointment in the spirit of concordia, but for Beijing’s control over the appointments of bishops. The Vatican’s refusal to accept Beijing’s demands halted the negotiations. Rows followed over the self-consecration of Chinese bishops and the canonization of saints in China. Yet what prevented China and the Vatican from resuming negotiations at the level of the Zhao-Sin meeting?

Various factors explain these phenomena at different stages of political development—both internally and externally from the viewpoints of China and the Vatican—in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods (Leung, 2005a). Very few of them touch upon the intermediary roles of the churches in Hong Kong or Macau. However, the changes in the Catholic churches of Hong Kong and Macau, accompanied by a gradual assertion of their influence vis-à-vis China and the Vatican, transformed the course of Sino-Vatican relations. The focus of the dispute between the Vatican and China has switched to Hong Kong and Macau, whose Catholic leaders turned a new page in Sino-Vatican relations.

Traditionally, Hong Kong played an important role in facilitating contacts between Beijing and the Vatican. The return of Hong Kong and Macau to Chinese sovereignty shifted the paradigm of Sino-Vatican relations, with these two cities being the only locations in China where religious freedom was allowed under the “one country, two systems” formula. Hong Kong has asserted great influence over the Chinese Catholic Church. Given its desire to prevent this unwanted influence, Beijing has been playing the Hong Kong and Macau churches off against each other. The following discussions highlight the fundamental roles of Hong Kong and Macau for China and the Vatican, and offer an explanation for the stagnancy in Sino-Vatican negotiations.

China and the Vatican

The relationship across the Taiwan Straits, which has important implications for Sino-Vatican relations, experienced a drastic change from the presidency of Chen Shui-bien, to the current dialogue and cooperation with Beijing under Ma Ying-jeou. Given that Beijing does not see that the eventual unification with Taiwan is imminent, there is less need for concessions and compromises in Sino-Vatican negotiations as the need to isolate Taiwan has waned. For Beijing, the incentives for normalization in Sino-Vatican relations have been drastically reduced.

Moreover, the value of religions in general, including Catholicism, has been reduced. There are some signs showing that Beijing does not wish to have close alliances and cooperation with religious groups that are alternative and potentially competing reservoirs of values and morality. Under Hu Jintao’s national campaign of building morality, religious leaders in China have been asked to promote economic development and social harmony, but not to emphasize socialist morality (China View, 2009). China prefers Confucianism as its moral framework. In reality, there are many contrasting versions of Confucianism: liberal Confucianism, official or conservative Confucianism, left Confucianism, and depoliticized-popular Confucianism, among others. More importantly, Confucianism is just one ingredient in the eclectic ideational mix making up today’s China. Beijing has been selectively choosing depoliticized-popular Confucianism as its means to develop socialist morality (Garton Ash, 2009). It is an indication that China seeks to keep a distance from religion in order to avoid a clash between dialectic Marxism-Leninism and religious idealism.

The normalization of Sino-Vatican relations cannot be possible without concessions and accommodation by both parties. However, there has been an intensification of control of religious affairs, especially after the 2008 Tibet riots. Surveillance of religious organizations has been upgraded, by moving it from the public security level to the national security level. In the government’s religious policy there is no sign of concessions or a relaxing of control which would be prerequisites for successful Sino-Vatican negotiations.

For the Vatican, the papal policy of standing on the side of the non-official sector of Catholics—as expressed in the papal letter of 2007—remains the basic orientation of its China policy.

New Factors in Sino-Vatican Negotiations

After Deng Xiaoping launched China’s reforms in 1978, the Vatican chose Hong Kong as its main contact point to China. Geographically, it was close enough to China to get first-hand information, yet politically it was distant enough not to be interfered by Beijing (when it was still under the British rule). In 1980, the Vatican requested the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese to establish a study center on China. This center, the Holy Spirit Study Center, has acted as a facilitator for briefing foreign missionaries visiting China. It also publishes Tripod, a bi-monthly magazine providing up-to-date news and relevant data for researchers on the Catholic Church in China.

On more than one occasion, Sino-Vatican interactions took place in Hong Kong. For example, in February 1981, Hong Kong was chosen to be the meeting place of Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican’s secretary of the states, and Bishop Dominic Deng of Guangzhou who had just been released after 22 years of imprisonment. In this meeting, Casaroli expressed that the Vatican was willing to normalize its disrupted relations with Beijing (Deng, 1994: 177-181). In March 1981, Deng was delegated by Casaroli to approach Chinese officials in Hong Kong to initiate Sino-Vatican contacts as a first step to thaw their frozen relations. China, however, had no intention to normalize its diplomatic ties with the Vatican (Deng, 1994: 193-195). After the Sino-Vatican row over the unilateral papal appointment of Deng as archbishop of Guangzhou (June 1981), Deng chose to stay in Hong Kong to mediate between the church in China and the Vatican and to facilitate the revival of the Chinese Catholic Church (Deng, 1994:197-198).

In 1981, before Pope John Paul II called upon the overseas Chinese Catholics to bridge the distance between the Chinese Catholic Church and the universal church, Hong Kong Catholics had already initiated this “bridging endeavor” (Leung, 2000:185-195). With the call of the pope, Hong Kong Catholics formally and informally worked with Catholics in Macau, Taiwan, and other non-Chinese Catholics to revive dormant church activities on the mainland (Chen, 2002: 429-434). Human and financial resources were mobilized for the training of church leaders, distribution of religious literature, and funding church activities and social services. Hong Kong took up a leading facilitating role, with the diocese and its seminary becoming the main distributors of resources. For many years, annual meetings on coordination and evaluation were held in Hong Kong headed by the Vatican’s representative to the China Mission.

Under the “bridging endeavor” program the number of Catholics and religious activities expanded rapidly. The actual extent of this development is reflected in these statistics: the number of Catholic churches in China grew from 300 (1983) to 6,000 (2008), and included 100 bishops and 3,000 priests. The number of Catholics was estimated to have risen from 3.3 million (1986) to over 12 million (2008) (including both the official and underground churches). In 1997, there were 1,500 Catholic priests. In 2004, there were 2,200 priests, three quarters of whom had been ordained in the past 12 years. In 2008, there were 3,000 priests (Holy Spirit Study Centre, 1993: 19-76; China Catholic Communication, 1993: 10-18; 1997: 10-18; 2000: 8-14,18-20; 2004:18-20; Charbonnier, 2008: 24).

In 1998, the official church counted one national seminary, six regional seminaries, seven provincial seminaries, and ten diocesan seminaries with 1,000 major seminarians and 600 minor seminarians in training. There were ten training centers for the underground sector with 800 seminarians in training. There were 40 novitiates for religious sisters with 1,500 sisters under training in the official sector while 20 in the underground sector for the training of 1,000 sisters (Holy Spirit Study Center, 1993: 19-76; China Catholic Communication, 1993: 10-18; 1997: 10-18; 2000: 8-14, 18-20; 2004: 1-20; Charbonnier, 2008: 24). In 2008, there were 1,000 seminarians in 22 seminaries and preparatory schools plus 400 underground seminarians in 10 underground seminaries, as well as 5,000 sisters with 50 convents in the open and underground sectors (Charbonnier, 2008: 24).

Projects for the Catholic Church in China were initiated by foreign missionary groups and funding agents in Australia, the US, and Europe, with Hong Kong playing a coordinating and supervisory role. Its Holy Spirit Seminary facilitated overseas staff recruitment for China’s seminaries and the Liturgical Commission of the Hong Kong Diocese coordinated the distribution of religious literature and other aids for church activities. In addition, Caritas Hong Kong sponsored social projects that were not directly church-related.

However, this proliferation of religion is not in Beijing’s interest. Its religious policy still aims at the elimination of the development of religion when ideological conflict between the CCP and religion is generic (Ye, 1996:9-23).3 The conflict is the crystallization of the fundamental clash in ideologies between dialectic Marxism-Leninism and religious idealism.

Shortly before the handover of Hong Kong, Beijing’s religious cadres privately and informally reminded Hong Kong Catholics that the “bridging endeavor” should be restricted after the handover, a call unheeded by Hong Kong Catholics, under the leadership of Bishop Joseph Zen. Not only did Hong Kong Catholics refuse to end their activities on the mainland, but under Zen they changed its orientation. In 2005, upon his elevation as Bishop Cardinal, a member of the papal cabinet—the College of Cardinals—Zen expressed his concerns about major issues more openly regarding the mainland Catholic Church. After all, he was “old hand” of the Vatican’s China policy, having spent ten years teaching in seminaries across China before becoming the prelate of Hong Kong. Being the only Chinese in the Vatican’s cabinet, Zen’s opinion on China policy gained weight among the Roman Curia. He persuaded the Vatican to support the well-being of Catholics in the underground sector, as well as to care more about the persecution and oppression of the mainland Catholic Church. Above all, Zen did not hold the view that the Vatican should make too many concessions to Beijing (Malovic, 2007: 81-114).

Mainly at Zen’s request, the Vatican setup a committee on China questions in 2007. This committee advises the Vatican on up-to-date developments on church-state relations, meeting twice a year to discuss a special topic in the Chinese church (Malovic, 2007: 81-114). Also at Zen’s suggestion, Pope Benedict XVI wrote an open letter in 2007 to all the Catholics in China giving them clear religious guidance on practicing their Catholic life. On 24 May 2009, the pope launched an official explanation—called the compendium—on the 2007 papal letter, guiding Chinese clergy and laity to interpret the letter properly especially on some sensitive issues. These new suggestions, originating from Zen, led to a shift of paradigms in the Vatican’s considerations on China (South China Morning Post, 2009a; Ming Pao, 2009; Hong Kong Economic Review, 2009).

The Role of the Hong Kong and Macau Churches

The unique international outlook of Hong Kong stems from the self-awareness of its people, its liberal civil society, its role as an international financial center, and its legal and political system developed under the British rule, which, since 1841, attracted Chinese refugees to settle down. Macau, an enclave 60 miles west of Hong Kong, does not share all of these characteristics. Both Hong Kong and Macau received refugees from China, but most of them stayed only shortly in Macau while those who went to Hong Kong tended to settle there. After the December 1966 riots by pro-China elements in Macau, the CCP’s influence began to be felt in Macau as a result of the Portuguese government’s failure to restore law and order during the riots spilling over from the Cultural Revolution. This episode began Macau’s era of decolonization, while in Hong Kong this did not happen until 1997.

In China’s public administration, Hong Kong and Macau are run by the same Hong Kong and Macau Office of the State Council. The different nature of these two cities has been utilized by Beijing for its own interests. Beijing’s influence over Macau has been utilized to curb dissent in Hong Kong. The refusal of entry to Macau of pro-democratic Hong Kong citizens is a case in point. Wuer Kaxi, a student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen incident living in Taiwan, was refused to enter Macau on his way back to China after 20 years of exile (South China Morning Post, 2009b).

In religious affairs, Macau and Hong Kong have their own roles to play. The Macau Catholic Church has been honored and favored by Beijing, while relations with Hong Kong’s dissenting former cardinal, Joseph Zen, were tense. This reflects the emergence of a new relationship between the Catholic churches of Hong Kong and Macau since the change of sovereignty (Leung, 1999: 11-25; Leung, forthcoming). The Hong Kong and Macau churches are local churches with independent administrative powers, led by their own bishops, and are under the administrative direction of the Vatican and the spiritual leadership of the pope. However, these two local churches have their own history of development, entertaining cordial relations with Britain and Portugal. These two European governments had different attitudes towards returning their territories to China and behaved differently during their transfer of sovereignty negotiations. Hong Kong citizens were anxious about returning to Chinese sovereignty, while Macau citizens looked forward to it (Leung, 2010: 381-400). Consequently, Beijing has been more relaxed on political developments in Macau than in Hong Kong (Lo, 2001: 41-60).

The Portuguese policy of appeasement towards China undoubtedly had implications for the Macau Church’s position towards China. Traditionally, the Macau Church had strong established ties with the government (Leung, forthcoming). Due to this legacy, the Macau Church has been more docile to Beijing. By contrast, Bishop Zen led Hong Kong Catholics to struggle against policies of the Hong Kong government in the name of freedom and human rights, when it began to push for unpopular reforms (Lo, 2001). His struggle became political and attracted international attention.

Hong Kong: Between Dissent and Loyalty

In the eyes of the Vatican, Hong Kong has been a very important diocese and, as expressed by one of the papal cabinet members, its church was the most active among those in the greater China region. In 1996, Father Joseph Zen and Father John Tong were selected to be Hong Kong’s coadjutor bishop and auxiliary bishop respectively. The coadjutor meant to be the successor of Cardinal Wu as the future prelate of Hong Kong (Sunday Examiner, 1996; Kung Kao Po, 1996). For nearly two decades (1996-2009) Bishop Zen led the Hong Kong Catholic Church, exercising his leadership in the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese after the death of Cardinal Wu in 2002. Zen changed Hong Kong’s religious landscape while switching the orientation of Sino-Vatican relations to a new direction. He turned a new page in church-state relations by heavily involving himself in socio-political issues.

Having joined the Vatican’s policy-making elite, he switched the paradigm of the “bridging endeavor” by turning more attention to the underground sector of the Chinese Church, away from previous Vatican practice of siding with the official sector. Above all, Zen requested the Roman Curia to have high-level special deployments for Sino-Vatican relations (Malovic, 2007: 81-144). Zen charted a new path for the socio-political involvement of the Hong Kong Catholic Church, as well as for the Vatican’s relationship with Beijing, with a number of controversial social issues affecting the overall state of relations.

Vie “Right of Abode” Controversy

The start of Zen’s socio-political involvement was his drafting of Cardinal Wu’s pastoral letter titled “God Is Love,” which took issue with the Hong Kong government’s stance during the right of abode controversy. A verdict by the city’s Court of Final Appeal would have opened the window for 1.6 million mainland children of Hong Kong and mainland parents to settle in Hong Kong. Amidst the debate between scholars, jurists, human rights activists, and government officials, Zen called on Hong Kong to shelter those 1.6 million abode-seekers. The pastoral letter criticized the selfishness of Hongkongers:

In fact, a large number of adult Hong Kong residents came from the Mainland to settle here in the 1950s and 1960s. Hong Kong at that time was not blessed with a strong economy or firm social structure. Nevertheless, when faced with a continuous flood of refugees, there was no hesitation and doors were opened to welcome them … Faced then today with the question of children born to Hong Kong parents in the Motherland, how can we harden our hearts, look on with indifference and a lack of humanity, and use “interpretation” to deny them hope? (quoted in Wu, 2005: 470-473).

Article 23 Legislation

Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law requires the legislation of its own law to prohibit acts of secession, subversion, treason, sedition, theft of state secrets, foreign political organizations from conducting political activities in Hong Kong, and local political organizations from establishing ties with foreign political bodies. Hong Kong has currently no “secession” and “subversion” offences, although there are existing laws against treason. Zen issued a long statement opposing the proposed legislation (Leung, 2004:113-136):

I am worried about the legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law, because the contents of the consultation document and the aggressive style of the document constitute a serious threat to the “One Country, Two Systems.” Under the principle of the “One Country, Two Systems,” the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese operates smoothly like many other Catholic dioceses in the world. According to the guiding principles of the consultation document, if the Catholic Church in China in future were to be condemned as an organisation endangering the national safety, the Catholic Church in Hong Kong would follow the same fate … If we legislate Article 23 of the Basic Law according to the consultation document, the religious policy of the mainland can be easily transmitted to us. What is the religious policy of the mainland? It alludes to an “absolute control” on religious matters. It levies a heavy punishment on those who refuse to render absolute obedience by arbitrary persecution.

Zen became a high profile opponent of the proposed legislation and a figurehead for political opposition to the unpopular, Beijing-appointed administration of Tung Chee-hua (Lague and Murphy, 2003: 24-27). Public demonstrations followed, with the anti-government rally on 1 July 2003 (500,000 participants) being the largest demonstration in Hong Kong since 1989. Zen was opposed to the proposed legislation for two reasons. First, it undermined the “one country two systems” formula which acts as a filter for Chinese influence and ideology in religious affairs. Second, it erodes human rights including religious freedoms. Zen was afraid that Beijing’s standard on religious freedom and human rights might be imported to Hong Kong.

Education Reform

In the Bolshevik tradition, education is a crucial ideological element of a communist state (Pepper, 1996). Since 1949, various constitutions of China stipulated that religion cannot “interfere” with education (Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, 1982). Yet under “one country two systems,” Beijing has to work discreetly to influence education in Hong Kong. One way of achieving this has been the School-Based Management (SBM), a central part of the educational reforms by the Hong Kong government. It implies a distancing of education away from the church (the sponsoring body of many Catholic schools) and an undermining of the church’s involvement in education. Catholic educators together with other Christian educators saw SBM as a direct challenge to religious education and an infringement of religious freedom (Li, 2004; Pan, 2004; Chan, 2004). Under the SBM system, not more than 60% of the school board members were to be from the school managers or sponsoring bodies, while the remaining 40% are representatives of the community who are likely not to be Catholics. Also, there were too few Catholic religious professionals to fill management positions in schools run by the Catholic Church. The problem was aggravated by the fact that over 90% of the teaching staff was laity and among them 72.6% were non-Catholics. Given such change to the school management pattern, the Catholic education objectives in Catholic schools would have been undermined.

Zen feared that the introduction of compulsory teaching requirements might contradict key tenets of Christianity or that textbooks on a compulsory-use basis might include opinions on issues, such as abortion, that are contrary to Vatican’s positions. This indirectly forced the Catholic Church to distance itself from Hong Kong’s education (Brown, 2001). Zen’s worries were not groundless: it was confirmed by the former director of the Central Policy Unit, who perceived that there was a desire within the Hong Kong government to reduce the role of religious organizations in education (Goodstadt, 2003).

Through his word and actions Zen antagonized the Beijing and Hong Kong governments. Beijing retaliated by eliminating the “bridging endeavor” and by using Macau to split the traditionally close relationship between the Hong Kong and Macau churches. Zen was blacklisted as an arch-enemy of China and direct communication channels between Beijing and Zen’s office were closed. Only a couple of pro-China priests in the Hong Kong diocese kept contacts with China. They in turn were allowed to work on environmental issues and the formation of church personnel in China, to cater provisions to the underground and official churches, and Zen’s left-hand man, Bishop John Tong, was even invited to attend the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Zen’s reputation as a dissident overshadowed others who are working quietly at various positions for the interest of the church.

Macau: Smooth Church-State Relations

Church-state relations are less thorny in Macau than in Hong Kong. Bishop Domingo Lam (1988-2003), the first Chinese Catholic bishop of Macau, was invited to be a member of the drafting committee of Macau’s Basic Law. Compared with the size of the Catholic diocese in Hong Kong (260,000 Catholics in Hong Kong against 20,000 in Macau), the importance of Hong Kong for the Vatican, and the status of Cardinal Wu in the church’s hierarchy, Wu should have been invited instead of Lam. Lam’s invitation revealed that Beijing trusted Bishop Lam, but not Cardinal Wu. The Catholic Church in Macau had been gradually marginalized since the December 1966 riots, posing little threat to the government. The Macau Church did not openly advocate social justice and human rights and subdued its criticism of the proliferation of gambling activities in Macau.

Zen’s activities in Hong Kong stood in direct contrast to Macau. For Beijing, Lam held a favorable and accommodating attitude, which had developed through Portugal’s policy of appeasement (Leung, 2010: 381-400). In June 1999, shortly before Macau’s handover, Lam openly declared his pro-China attitude on religious affairs (Zhang, 1999: 25-26). He remarked that Macau had been traditionally cooperative with the legitimate government and would follow the same tradition to cooperate with Beijing. He also thought that Macau was too small to threaten China and toed Beijing’s official line by expressing that a Catholic should be law-abiding and contribute to the service of the “motherland” (Zhang, 1999). In other words, he alluded that in religious matters, he would not go against the will of Beijing. He also promised that the Macau diocese would not take initiation by engaging in any project for the Catholic Church in China except only at the invitation of the mainland (Zhang, 1999), but left his remarks ambiguous enough to be acceptable both to China and the Vatican. Subsequently, Lam’s contribution was recognized by Beijing and he was decorated by the Macau government before retiring in January 2003 (Xinhua Aobao, 2002).

The close relationship between the Macau Catholic Church, Beijing, and the Macau government is manifested in the exchange of visits between bishops and Chinese officials, Macau’s contribution to the “bridging endeavor,” and the creation of a Catholic tertiary education institute.

Macau Church Visits to China

The smoothness in relations with Beijing is demonstrated by the many official visits of Macau clergy to Beijing and Guangdong, which were widely reported in Macau. In April 2009, visits were extended to Guangxi province (The Macau Observer, 2009a; 2009b). All visits were official government invitations and included meetings with officials of Beijing’s Macau and Hong Kong Office. The visiting teams were received by high-ranking Chinese officials, such as Ye Xiaowen (head of the Religious Affairs Bureau) and Liu Yendong (former assistant director of the United Front Department of the Chinese Communist Party), as well as the current vice premier.

In November 2006, Liu visited Macau and discussed with Macau Bishop Jose Lai, which was seen by some Macau Catholics to be a special honor to the Catholic Church. All these contacts form a sharp contrast to Zen being labeled as a persona non grata by Beijing. Beijing also instructed Chinese Catholic clergy who planned to go abroad not to visit Hong Kong or to meet with Zen.

The “Bridging Endeavor” of Macau

The move of the Jesuit missionaries of the Greater China Region to Macau reveals how the Jesuits made use of Macau’s appeasement policy to enhance their “bridging endeavor” in China. In the early 1990s, the central administration of the Jesuits in Rome decided to move its provincial administration from Taipei to Macau. The Jesuits’ move to Macau caught the attention of many in the church, since Jesuits were regarded as the pioneers of the China mission. As early as in 1577, Matteo Ricci and his companions had taken Macau as their base to enter China. The Jesuits foresaw that the political orientation of the Democratic People’s Party of Taiwan would lead the island towards a more autonomous stance, which is opposed by Beijing. In this political climate, Taiwan would not be a favorable base for the Jesuits’ “bridging endeavor.” Hong Kong was not seen as a choice because of its assertive approach towards Beijing.

The Jesuits launched a policy of maintaining their work intact in Taiwan and Hong Kong, while developing their work in China through Macau. They also set up a new study center in Macau, the Ricci Institute, aiming at initiating a dialogue with Chinese intellectuals in cultural matters, the social sciences, and the humanities. Unlike the traditional Jesuit approach of holding up a pro-Vatican attitude, the Ricci Institute adopted a conciliatory attitude towards China, avoiding confrontation and dissent.

The close church-state relations in Macau attracted foreign missionaries to Macau as part of their “bridging endeavors” with China. Since 1987, five male, six female, and one missionary society mixed with male and female members established branches in Macau (Episcopal, 2008: C1-9, D1-24). The Dominicans, who were the first cohort of missionaries, had arrived in Macau in 1587 and built the Rosary Church. After an absence of nearly 300 years they returned in 1997 with a big community of 31 priests and seminarians. The attractiveness of Macau for foreign missionaries rests in the fact that both Chinese immigration, as well as the local Chinese government, are much more lenient to religious visitors from Macau rather than from Hong Kong. Religious organizations with their missionaries located in the Macau engaging in the “bridging endeavor” with China met little opposition by Chinese immigration authorities or the Religious Affairs Bureau. The same type of bridging work from Hong Kong encounters much more obstacles, even though the work offered by missionaries in Macau is much lesser volume than that in Hong Kong.

Controversy Over the Catholic Tertiary Institute

St. Joseph’s University (SJU), the former Macau Inter-University Institute (HUM), is a Catholic tertiary education institute established in 1995 under the governance of the Catholic University of Portugal (Imprensa Oficial, 2010). It was a project to promote Portuguese culture in Macau, as stipulated in the Sino-Portuguese Agreement of 1987. It is a liberal art tertiary institute with humanities and social sciences as the main streams of academic training.

In 2000, at the suggestion of the Macau government, the School of Religious Studies was established. In 2006, a program of Catholic theology was launched to replace the Christian Studies Program, which aimed at providing Catholic theological studies to church personnel. Liu Bainien, the vice-president and secretary general of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in Beijing, announced that in the future priests and seminarians will go to Macau for training without going to Hong Kong, as a measure to sideline the Hong Kong Catholic Church for its “unacceptable” behavior in irritating Beijing.

SJU’s School of Theology demonstrates the complicated relationship between Portugal, the Vatican, and China. China seeks to use SJU to launch the Catholic theology program as a gesture to undermine Zen’s Hong Kong Church. Macau Bishop Jose Lai supported the theological program as an important step for the rejuvenation of the dormant Catholic Church in Macau. To have the School of Theology in Macau under Beijing’s thumb had significant consequences not only for church-state relations of Macau, but also for Sino-Vatican relations. Traditionally within any religious denomination, a theological program is a vital vehicle for the training of future religious leaders. In fact, in the last three decades since 1979, both the Vatican and Beijing lost no time by employing various tactics in the interplay between the CCP party line and Church orthodoxy in seminary education (Leung, 2001, pp. 657-690). It is one of many issues of the clash of teaching authority which has been a theme in Sino-Vatican relations (Leung, 1992).

Ironically, it was Beijing that wanted to establish a theological program at SJU. The Portuguese rector and advisors embraced the program, working with the Macau bishop, but refusing a dialogue with the Hong Kong church on theological education. This gave credibility to the hypothesis that this was the beginning of a splitting of the traditionally close relationship between the Hong Kong and Macau dioceses under the CCP’s “United Front” policy.

The theology program was discussed by the bishop and Liu during her 2006 Macau visit. At the suggestion of Liu, a group of nearly 20 priests from various parts of China were sent to SJU for a two-week seminar in late August 2007. The short seminar was the first gesture of China to give its blessing to the theology program (Leung, 2001). All these give the impression that SJU has been used as an instrument by China to isolate the Hong Kong Church and to training future Chinese Catholic leaders according to Beijing’s “United Front” policy.

SJU can be regarded as a convergence between the Chinese and Western types of seminary. It can turn out to be a device of the international integration of the Catholic churches in China (with special links to the Portuguese Church) and a channel for the indigenization of the Chinese Church. The Macau diocese led by Lai enjoys warm relations with Beijing and backs the government-sponsored sector of the Chinese Church. Yet he has done nothing to harm the underground church, and he allows religious congregations in his diocese to carry on the “bridging endeavor” as much as they can without ecclesiastical interference. Also, the bishop has done nothing to contradict the teachings of the church in order to please Beijing.

In the context over clashing of authorities between China and the Vatican, the theological program in Macau is a battlefield between Chinese control and the Vatican’s orthodoxy. It is possible because the Portuguese academic authorities of SJU, together with the Catholic authorities in Macau, favor appeasement with Beijing. They fail to see the importance of Church orthodoxy in this issue, preferring instead to open the chance for the future cooperation with China. The Macau diocese purposely avoids direct connections with the Vatican and is accountable only to the Catholic University of Portugal. SJU’s top management is not prepared to have the program sent directly to the Vatican for approval or validation.

In this clash over SJU’s theology program, Chinese interests allied with Portuguese interests. This crystallizes the struggle of interests between the Vatican and China. The Sino-Portuguese interest is to gain an upper hand, as long as the Portuguese appeasement policy towards China prevails.

In the matter of academic development, SJU supports Beijing in exchange for its assistance with human resources and financial assistance. SJU recruited a mainland professor to chair the government studies program and undertook a campus expansion in exchange for hiring the director of a Chinese-sponsored cultural institute in Macau to be the vice-rector for cultural affairs and liaison with the Beijing government. In China’s general practice, the professorial personnel and directorship of cultural and educational institutes should be CCP members. This introduction of CCP members into a Catholic educational institute is unprecedented. Catholics fear the CCP’s capacity for infiltration (Selznick, 1960).

In February 2009, at the request of the Education Department of the Vatican, the Catholic University of Portugal sent its director of the Theological Department to SJU to investigate these concerns. The investigator agreed with the insufficiency in teaching staff but did not find it problematic to have CCP members joining the leadership of a Catholic education institute. The difference between European and Chinese communism might explain the attitude of this Portuguese investigator. An investigator with a Western background thinks that communism is no longer alive in China—with capitalism replacing the state-command economy—and fails to grasp the tight political control over ideology that still prevails in China.

The Vatican’s Considerations on China

China’s leniency towards Macau’s becomes apparent by the number of official visits over the last years. It reflects the political reality of Beijing’s influence over Macau. In Sino-Vatican negotiations, Hong Kong’s Cardinal Zen has tended to stand on the Vatican side for the interest of the universal church, while the Macau Church stands closer to Beijing. The difference between the treatment of Macau and Hong Kong churches indicates Beijing’s view that favorable relations with China are earned through docility and not by dissent.

Beijing’s “divide and rule” strategy has been very skillfully applied. Vatican officials noticed that the deterioration of the relationship between the Catholic dioceses of Hong Kong and Macau is not in the interest of the Catholic Church. The Vatican is uncomfortable with Macau’s closeness with Beijing. Political gestures from the Vatican have been extended to Macau to remedy this situation.

For instance, the Vatican invited the Macau bishop to participate in the Vatican’s Special Committee on China Affairs. Macau Bishop Jose Lai, although not a China expert, was asked to participate in both the sections on the consultation of experts held in Hong Kong and the general assembly taking place in Rome. In October 2008, Lai and the two bishops from Hong Kong were also summoned to pay an Ad Limnia visit to the Vatican as a group (Diocesan Information Bureau, 2009). (Under Portuguese rule, the Macau bishop was among a group of Portuguese bishops in his Ad Limnia visit.) The bishops of Macau and Hong Kong were also invited by the Vatican to participate in the highest level of policy-making meeting of the Catholic Church—the synod of world bishops (Diocesan Information Bureau, 2009). Of the more than 3,000 Catholic bishops in the world, only 200 bishops were selected to participate, according to a quota set for each nation. Prior to Macau’s handover, its bishop was a member of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference. Among the Portuguese bishops, Bishop Lai was the only ethnic Chinese and stood no chance to be selected due to the lack of capacity of the Macau diocese and his language capacity, as well as national prejudice among Europeans towards Asians. After the handover, the Macau diocese was separated from the Portuguese diocese and placed directly under the Vatican’s Office of Bishops.

Both Hong Kong and Macau bishops were specially invited by the Vatican for this high profile meeting, because of the political considerations towards these two dioceses. These are the only two dioceses within China to enjoying We stern-style “religious freedom” World Bishops Synod in 2008 (Leung, 2005b: 984-913). Bishop Jose Lai of Macau was able to be in this high profile church gathering, to meet and make acquaintance with prominent personalities of the Catholic world, elevating his social and ecclesiastical status. Lai was given the chance to further his socio-ecclesiastical development, mainly because the Vatican wants to draw Macau closer to its side to balance its close relationship with Beijing.

Since the Second Vatican Council (1963-65), there were four prominent Asian church leaders putting Christian socio-religious values into practice by going against political authorities. These people risked their lives by standing against the political power by implementing Christian social teaching in socio-political issues. In the Philippines, Cardinal Jaime Sin helped the people to get rid of the corrupt Marcos administration. In Korea, Cardinal Stephen Kim spent long years in accompanying Korean democrats in their fight for democracy. In Vietnam, Cardinal Pham Ding Tung stood up to the oppressive Vietcong to protect religious freedom. In Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen struggled for the protection of freedom and human rights. Many were moved by Zen’s bravery, courage, and his compassion for the poor and weak. However, Sino-Vatican negotiations were stagnant under Zen’s leadership in Hong Kong and the Vatican’s China Affairs office (2003-09).

The Vatican does not want cold relations with China to carry on forever. Consequently, the Vatican conceded to a change of leadership in Hong Kong by allowing Zen to step down from the Hong Kong diocese and to replace him with the soft-spoken John Tong. Tong expressed having a similar stance on church-state relations, but with different emphases. He told reporters that he believes that it is far more important to defend religious freedom than to normalize Sino-Vatican relations. He also expressed that he will not contact the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association by himself (Kung Kao Po, 2009d). Zen’s influence of church-state relations in Hong Kong and of the Vatican’s China Affairs office has been reduced. This is a move by the Vatican to make concessions to Beijing by removing China’s persona non grata with the intention of reopening Sino-Vatican negotiations. Now the Vatican awaits Beijing’s response.

The shift of paradigms in Sino-Vatican relations influenced how the Vatican and China relate to each other and to Hong Kong and Macau. These two cities are important, as they play their own political roles in the plans of Beijing and the Vatican.

The legacy of Zen’s leadership is twofold. His elevation to the rank of cardinal changed the Vatican’s orientation towards China, placing more emphasis on the underground sector of the Chinese Church and setting up a special consultative committee on China. However, his political activism also caused the stagnation in Sino-Vatican negotiations. Ultimately, the Vatican was left with no choice but to allow him to retire. It wanted to give a sign to Beijing for concessions in exchange for the reopening of Sino-Vatican negotiations, which is essential for a Sino-Vatican concordat.