Pope John Paul II's visit to the Philippines has raised a fundamental Asian religious question: Can ties between Chinese and the outside world be strengthened?
The answer will shed light on the degree of flexibility of the Vatican. It will also show how far the Chinese leadership of Deng Xiaoping is willing to go to loosen religious freedom and to build ties with the outside world.
The Pope's visit to the Manila slum of Tondo and his remarks among poor sugar cutters on the island of Cebu also conditionally threw him on the side of Filipino social reformers who seek to raise wages through organized action. But the Pope's continued opposition to violence and Marxism meant he was continuing to play a balancing game between the badly divided Filipino clergy's conservative elements and its younger, more activist wing.
A Vatican spokesman in Manila said Feb. 18 the Roman Catholic Church is considering recognizing the independent Catholic Church of China. A day earlier the Pope had given an impassioned speech in which he said he longed to visit China and visit with more Catholics cut off from the rest of the church. It was the strongest Vatican invitation for better relations with China in the last two years.
The independent Catholic Church of China is a state-dominated church that does not recognized the primacy of the Pope or the Vatican. It was set up after the Chinese revolution led to harassment of Catholics who continued to affirm Vatican ties.
This church cautiously welcomed the Pope's call. But there are serious political problems barring reconciliation between the Vatican and the Chinese -- among whom millions are estimated to be at least nominally Catholic.
There was clearly an aura of warmth in the air. But formidable problems remained, among them the Vatican's continued ties with Taiwan-related Catholic organizations. But growing ties between Chinese Catholics and the Vatican could be seen by China's government as a threat to its control with little redeeming value.
Since the death of Chairman Mao Tse-tund in 1976 China has reduced restrictions on freedom of religion, and some churches have been reopened. Some experts say Deng Xiaoping needs the support of Christians to carry through his policies. Others say this is mainly window dressing for foreign tourists. In any case, full relations with the Vatican would test China's willingness to open its doors to foreign influence. It would also test the Vatican's ability to ward off criticism that it is warning to Marxism and selling out Taiwan.