VATICAN CITY: Caritas Internationalis has held a series of meeting in Rome this week on China. Delegates looked at the humanitarian and development needs of the Chinese people, and how agencies linked to the Church can best help.
China is a profoundly divided society of 1.3 billion people. It has experienced unprecedented economic growth over the past decade that has raised many out of poverty. But millions more have been left behind. Over 160 million people live on less than a US$1, while 480 million live on less than US$2.
Problems include rural poverty, economic migration, an aging population, and the lack of healthcare to provide help for vulnerable groups such as the disabled. For example, there are over 144 million people over 60, but only ten nursing beds for every 1000 elderly people.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop of Hong Kong, attended the meetings at Caritas. He spoke with CI’s Nancy McNally about the work of the Church and Caritas.
Q. How does Caritas work in China?
A. We work with the support of the three Chinese Caritas organisations in Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as different members of the international Caritas Confederation.
Where Caritas is under the direction of a bishop, we can carry out our work in providing social services. But it remains very local in each case, since at a national level, there is no Bishops’ Conference to give the organisation guidance. What we can do is to help to build up the diocesan, local Caritas services and help them to improve.
We do very discreet work in China. Our projects are limited in scope. What we do is done with the full agreement and usually the praise of the local authorities, because we are really helping the people. But if your projects start becoming too big or too prominent, they might start to cause problems for you, because they are afraid that you are also gaining power.
Of course, we never proselytize. But they might say sure, you’re not doing it today, but what about tomorrow?
Caritas is Catholic, and it must always be under the Church hierarchy. And charity cannot be separated from the faith: it is just another face of the same Church. But the work we do is social in nature, which is more acceptable. So we present ourselves as Caritas, but we hope that in China one day the strictly religious activity will also be accepted.
What do you make of the new wealth in China?
Of course this economic progress is a reality, but it’s not all that simple. There are so many problems, and so many new problems, that come with it. There is corruption on a large scale. The gap between rich and poor is widening. Although there is great progress economically, the benefits are not filtering down throughout society, for instance, in the healthcare or educational systems.
Q: There seems to be an impasse in the “warming of relations” between the Chinese government and the Vatican, especially over the recent naming of bishops. What is the way forward?
There should be some give and take on both sides, but that isn’t happening. On the issue of who has the final authority on naming bishops, I think the Vietnamese model is a very good one for China, but they aren’t welcoming that model at all. In that model, the Holy See presents a list of candidates for bishop to the Chinese government, the government is then given a chance to comment, and then the Holy See makes its decision taking into account this exchange. That is good enough. They have the opportunity to make a political objection. However, it is not possible for government officials to know what qualities are needed in a bishop.
Despite these current difficulties, are you still feeling positive that in the end, progress will continue to be made?
There are people who enjoy certain advantages in keeping the system just the way it is. They get power or money from it, so they don’t want to change. So they are creating problems, but we hope that the higher authorities recognise that it is time for change. We hope the higher authorities will allow us to negotiate, because there is the possibility for a good solution.
We say that China must have religious freedom first. The Chinese government has procrastinated on this, and this has caused so much suffering for the people. They need to live in harmony. There is no reason to resist the normalization of ties between us. We just don’t know right now. We really don’t know what will happen. All we can do is pray.
Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of 162 Catholic relief, development, and social service organisations present in 200 countries and territories.
Nancy McNally, CI Media Officer
Tel: 0039 06 698 797 52