Dealing with The Vatican, China and Zen we must acknowledge that whatever else freedom means it must mean freedom of peaceable worship. Religious groups are inevitably intertwined with politics by virtue of the powerful sways they have over their congregations and the sheer numbers that become involved. In the case of China there is the added complication that their political ideology – as with many another – is itself a form of religion with the same endeavours to control and manage that most religions have.
I am a lapsed Catholic who loves the ceremony and music of the church and who still contributes a little to its institutions. I envy those who have a faith so strong that it can withstand the behaviour of many members of the hierarchy. Above all, I regard a person’s right to believe – or not – in unproved external forces as paramount in any society.
Maybe President Xi sees the growing congregations for Catholic churches as a form of (potential) political unrest. Religion certainly has a record of political intrigue and like-minded believers can be a strong force if marshalled correctly. Churches are the marshalling yards of religions. That is why he is closing some of them. Maybe the Vatican eyes the population of China as a good breeding ground for support of a church that has lost some following in the west. No Pope can ignore China.
The difficulty from the Catholic Church’s point of view is that it needs to be seen to be above politics while patently indulging in as much political manoeuvring as any other independent state. The Vatican occupies only 0.44 sq km of landmass but commands a following of some 400 million souls. For political purposes souls are people. The Church’s potential influence is therefore great, especially where the infallibility of the Pope is still believed.
As an institution the church has substantial assets but a less healthy cash flow. Many of the assets are unrealisable unless you are willing to destroy the whole manifestation of Catholicism. For reasons quite beyond religious faith this would be a desecration. Many good and faithful Catholics do many good and worthwhile things. Provided they don’t become extremist in pursuit of their faith they should be allowed to worship peacefully.
Now Cardinal Joseph Zen, Archbishop of Hong Kong, is in dispute with the Pope’s attempts to reach a deal with President Xi. The Chinese Authorities have already closed a middle-class English-speaking Roman Catholic Church in Beijing. Closures elsewhere are happening too. China is now demanding the right to appoint Bishops to the church. The bear hug has begun. The Pope is between a rock and a hard place. I imagine he thinks he has more to say than just ‘Holy Father’.
Ideologies and faiths of any kind have to be doubly careful in a world that is producing AI with faster and deeper thinking than humans. Science has entitled us increasingly to seek proof of whatever we are told. Fake news has created an increasingly blurred line between true and false. ‘Faction’ has moved from being for entertainment to being part of the fabric of life. Our lives, in any case, are largely fiction. We believe what we want to.
Today’s free democracy is the brainchild of the west. Trying to impose it on the rest of the world with a missionary zeal would suggest an arrogance unworthy of a thinking institution. Increasingly the people will fashion a religion in their own image and to suit their own wishes. That is as it should be because it encourages thought. And thought is the ultimate prayer.
Good Pope Francis said “As long as a person is seeking the truth, who am I to judge them?”
I’ll say Amen to that.