China & Modern Virtue

There's been a lot of attention given recently to the situation of China-Vatican relations. Especially in light of the Olympics being held in Beijing, the spotlight has been intensely focused on the red country, and its internal as well as foreign policies. For the Catholic world, the last year has also marked the release of Pope Benedict XVI's Letter to Chinese Catholics, in which the Holy Father's wishes for the faithful of China are made quite explicitly known. Nevertheless, the recent invitation from the Bishop of Beijing regarding a papal visit to the Far East has certainly come as a real shock to many, including Vatican officials, who have identified the current state-of-affairs as ranking "premature" for such an apostolic voyage. In his address, given on Italian national television, Bishop Li Shan expressed that "all Chinese Catholics love and respect the pope and recognize his authority," and assured that such a visit is a "great aspiration," and would be a blessing for the Chinese people.

Regardless of how it all turns out—and just how long it takes for a pope to make the journey into these somewhat hostile territories—Bishop Li Shan's statement regarding Chinese Catholics en masse struck me as very telling. What American bishop (or Italian or German bishop, for that matter) could honestly say that "all (insert respective nationality here) Catholics love and respect the pope and recognize his authority"? The answer, as I'm sure most would agree, is virtually none. I'm not even positive that Bishop Li Shan can be 100% sure either. Nonetheless, I bet he is quite certain that about 99.9% fall into that category of faithfulness to the Magisterium and obedience to the Holy Father. And he can be so certain because he knows that to be Catholic in China means to be Catholic in the face of clear and present danger.

For all the things we lack in the West—for example, the preservation of a unified and publicly recognized code of morality—the greatest deficiency we face may be the deficiency of opposition to our faith. Of course, things occur all that time that implicitly provide opposition to the Catholic faith; laws are enacted that support abortion rights, homosexual unions are given legal status, etc. But what I am talking about is an explicit opposition to the faith. And opposition whose goal it is not to undermine the faith by pursuing its own initiatives, but rather to eliminate the faith as its ultimate and final goal. This is the sort of opposition faced by Chinese Catholics, whose Church has been taken away from them and whose practice of the Catholic religion is often times limited to clandestine and secretive gatherings. This too was the type of oppression issued by Roman authorities in the first and second centuries, during which the Christian faith took root and began to flourish throughout the entire known world. If early Christians thrived when most oppressed, their Chinese counterparts will likely do the same. And it is for this reason that Bishop Li Shan can honestly say that his flock loves and respects Pope Benedict XVI and the Church he shepherds.

An interesting investigation is this: If zeal for the teachings of the Holy See is a sign of authentic acceptance of the faith, then what do we find in a large public rejection of those teachings other than a rejection of the faith. Don't tell this to the many American Catholics, who believe that what the Church says is 'outdated' and 'in need of revision.' In fact, I would venture to guess that the majority of American Catholics over the age of 35 or so see thinking more 'progressively' than the Church as being nothing less than a virtue of the modern age. After all—if we can even accept such a classical definition of "virtue" as being a habit which tends toward the good—then surpassing the 'archaic' and 'medieval' mindsets of the Church with 'free-thinking' and 'liberated' approaches to life is a virtue! What then is left for the Church in our culture than to be the object of ridicule and the Club, whose members individually surpass its collective greatness and whose name indicates nothing more than the historical setting into which one has been born?

Certainly, its a bit of a hyperbole. But its not far from the truth. In areas of the world like China, though, its unfathomable. How could the Catholic faith be anything less than the Truth? And how could any Catholic, at least insofar as doctrine and matters of faith are concerned, not support and respect the Roman Pontiff, whose flock we are and whose charge we have become through the Petrine ministry?

For Christians, the image of the sun, rising in the East and setting in the West, has always been an image of Christ. Now, perhaps the lands of the Oriens are an even greater representation of the Body of Christ than the real sun ever could be. We would do well to look East, and discover for ourselves the true meaning of what it means to be Catholic, and how visibly the 'gates of hell' are present when the Church is authentic and alive.