TOM PLATE WRITES – ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’: Trust takes a long time to build up. Worse yet, in clumsy hands it can vanish before you know it. Notice how the trust-factor between Beijing and Washington seems to be bottoming out almost faster than you can say ‘the Spirit of Mar-a-Lago and the Diaoyutai State Guest House.’ And yet at this same dolorous moment in our fraught contemporary history, Beijing and the Vatican, remarkably, are up-trusting their heretofore wary and indeed volatile relationship by working up an ‘agreed framework’ for the appointment of Catholic bishops. A provisional state-church confirmation process is in the works: The deal looks to have been simply a matter – one might say – of reworking Matthew 22:21: Caesar (Beijing) is to be rendered what is due to the state without cutting out what is due to God (i.e., the Vatican … as it were).

What’s more, in this process, the representatives of President Xi Jinping and the Bishop of Rome (Pope Francis) appear to have curated a cup or two of utilitarian trust for one another. In an instructive interview with the Italian Sinologist and journalist Francesco Sisci, Rome’s lead negotiator mentioned the trust factor: It was “a long journey,” emphasized Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, “but it is above all a starting point … which demonstrates an increased trust between the two sides…. We have to journey together, because only in this way will we be able to heal the … misunderstandings of the past….”

In diplomacy, the playing field must be drained of opposing dogma: Moral bifurcation only serves to keep both sides’ feet planted in the ground they started with, vacating the possibility of movement and nullifying the modification of differences. Elaborated Cardinal Parolin: “In dialogue, neither of the two sides gives up its own identity or what is essential for carrying out its own task. China and the Holy See are not discussing theories about their respective systems nor do they want to reopen questions which by now belong to history. Instead we are looking for practical solutions which concern the lives of real people who desire to practice their faith peacefully and offer a positive contribution to their own country.”

Getting beyond dogmatic deadlocks of good versus evil requires a measure of mutual respect. The Good Marxist/Communist Party member doesn’t have to believe in God to know that others do. China’s ten million Catholics, to the cynical heart of the materialistic Marxist, may be fooling themselves; but is not wrong to let them believe, and quite a blunder to push them so far underground that you lose sight of what’s going on. Catholicism preaches that grace is always attainable; in effect, it practices a secular politics of forgiveness. Not China’s Communist Party, which, it seems, can be coldly unforgiving, especially with its mainland capitalists and/or perceived political enemies. There’s corruption in every society – even in sacrosanct Sweden, not to mention the U.S. Harsh CPC secular religiosity risks losing actual current believers via inflexibility.

Perhaps the Xi administration can take one harmless homily from Pope Francis’ chief diplomat without seeming to abandon the gospel of Marx and convert over to Matthew. Cardinal Parolin tells us his Church consciously chose not to negotiate from a standpoint of moral superiority: “China and the Holy See are not discussing theories about their respective systems, nor do they want to reopen questions which by now belong to history. Instead we are looking for practical solutions which concern the lives of real people who desire to practice their faith peacefully and offer a positive contribution to their own country.”

That sort of street-smart catholic secularity reflects the view that it is never a sin to negotiate, as long as you proceed from quiet self-confidence. In its heart and soul the Church may well view the CPC as rather removed from godliness, but at the negotiating table, even when you believe God is on your side, It hardly helps the trust-building process to crow about having a superior presence or ideology on your team, especially one the other side cannot see.

China deserves respect. Pope Francis, says Parolin, “sees China not only as a great country but also as a great culture, rich in history and wisdom. Today China has come to arouse great attention and interest everywhere, especially among young people. The Holy See hopes that China will not be afraid to enter into dialogue with the wider world and that the world’s nations will give credit to the profound aspirations of the Chinese people.”

For that to happen, the Party and the Government must tone down the nostalgia politics. With all that the Chinese civilization has been through, pining for a ‘China Dream’ that shimmers in dogmatic delusion about a phantom past is utterly batty. Surly, if the Church can manage to partly secularize the selection of new bishops, the Xi Jinping team can manage to avoid backtracking its hard-won economic modernizations, thoughtlessly bulking back up sludgy state-owned-enterprises, strengthening the Communist Party’s control over private businesses, and cowering think tanks and globally respected university faculties into dreary doctrinal orthodoxy. The dank and cheerless practice of neo-medievalism, whether of the Catholic sort or the Chinese, will lead to no good end.

If, today, the Vatican and Beijing do share a common approach, though not remotely common religious beliefs of course, it is the redemptive qualities of continuing internal reform: making their respective institutions better, not only for themselves but for their people. Once started, stopping makes no sense. Silly me, but if only God would make two more Parolins – one for each superpower – trans-Pacific relations might rise to the high tide of a diplomatic miracle or two before you know it.

Author and professor Tom Plate, the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount (LMU) in Los Angeles, a historically Jesuit university, entered a Catholic seminary as a very young man, and stayed one year. An earlier version of this column appeared in the South China Morning Post, the best daily English language newspaper in Asia.

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