Much of the public institutional response from the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) to the current COVID-19 outbreak has been region-specific, varying from archdiocese to archdiocese. The diocese of Shanghai—the largest city in China—has cancelled all public Masses indefinitely, pending the end of the epidemic. In the Philippines, where there have now been three confirmed cases, bishops have called for an oratio imperata—a type of obligatory prayer reserved for calamities—to be prayed in all weekday and Sunday Masses. The archbishop of Lima, Peru—a country with no confirmed cases of COVID-19—has responded by permitting Communion to be taken in the hand rather than directly to the mouth for hygiene.
There has, however, been relatively little public response from the Vatican. Pope Francis has asked twice for prayers for COVID-19 sufferers, and since the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially classified COVID-19 as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on January 30, 2020, the Vatican has sent around 600,000 masks to the provinces of Hubei, Zhejiang and Fujian in China.
These actions are unobjectionable and, pleasantly, evade the racism that has marred certain other institutional responses. However, the RCC is arguably the largest institution in the world by membership, and such a response to a crisis that began in the largest nation in the world by population seems rather muted. The Vatican response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic, for instance, was much more strident, when the Catholic News Agency portrayed the RCC as being on the ‘front line’—Catholic charities moved swiftly into action which outlined the planned actions by the RCC in response to the crisis.
The contrast is not necessarily due to the relative number of Catholics in each place, but instead how the historically complex and tense relationship between the RCC and the Chinese state informs not just the tone of the Vatican’s response but its practical abilities to draw upon its usual local infrastructure. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the RCC relied heavily on local sections of Caritas (the social services branch of the RCC) to carry out social education, mobilise parishes and support Catholic health programmes. However, Caritas has no official partners in mainland China; the main international Catholic charitable appeal so far has been via Jinde Charities, a government-recognised charity which has asked for donations of money and medical supplies.
While his predecessor Benedict XVI never visited Asia, Pope Francis has paid particular attention to the continent, calling it the ‘future of the Church’. In 2018, under Pope Francis, the Vatican signed a secret landmark agreement with the Chinese government addressing a problem of the ‘underground’ versus ‘official’ Catholic Church in China. There have long been effectively two versions of the RCC in China: the official RCC which was approved and sanctioned by the state, who held the power to choose the bishops; and the ‘underground’ RCC which rejected the state’s authority and cleaved instead to the Vatican. The agreement sought to combine the two, where the Vatican officially approved the government-selected bishops and the government allowed the Vatican veto power over future episcopal appointments.
A year prior, in 2017, Xi Jinping announced that one of the government’s policies for the next five years would be the ‘Sinicisation’ of faiths such as Christianity—that is, the adaptation of religion into mainstream (Han) Chinese cultural norms, and to socialist values. This means, for instance, retranslating the Bible into Mandarin, and incorporating more ‘Chinese elements’ into Catholic hymns, liturgy, and architecture. ‘Sinicisation’ has provoked a certain amount of fury, ranging from concerns that it is thinly veiled authoritarianism from the Chinese Communist Party to the conviction that cultural accommodations would damage Catholic integrity. But, fundamentally, the ‘need’ for Sinicisation is rooted in a view of Catholicism—and Christianity at large—as an inherently foreign religion that is by default a threat to or at least passively hostile towards traditional Chinese culture (however the latter may be interpreted); other religions which are seen as more ‘Chinese’, such as Taoism, have not been subject to the same scrutiny.
The Chinese Communist Party has not generally been friendly—to say the least—towards Christianity, but this view of Catholicism has deeper historical roots. The furore over Sinicisation echoes the Chinese rites controversy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, at which time Roman Catholicism had been growing rapidly in China and Jesuit missionaries—led by Matteo Ricci—argued that for a policy of accommodation to make evangelisation. In particular, Ricci argued that Chinese Catholics should be permitted to participate in certain rites such as ancestor veneration, on the basis that such rites were woven into and necessary for functioning within Chinese society at large and were therefore secular and not religious ones. Other orders, however, such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, disagreed and were horrified by Ricci’s proposed accommodations. Ultimately, in the early eighteenth century, the Vatican forbade Chinese Catholics from carrying out such rites; in response, the emperor banned all Catholic missions in China. Although the Vatican reversed its decision on the Chinese rites controversy two centuries later in the 1930s, and shortly thereafter the Chinese government established relations with the Vatican, that government was the government which now rules Taiwan, not mainland China. The Vatican is currently the only European state to officially recognise Taiwan as a nation, and do not have an embassy in Beijing.
Responses to COVID-19 in other countries have regularly been rooted in rooted in historical racism and xenophobia, and China’s public response to COVID-19 has been strongly coloured by its own memory and perception of its history, particularly the ‘century of humiliation’, as its response to the recent ‘sick man of Asia’ headline in the Wall Street Journal demonstrated. Historical precedent thus informs the cautious tone as well as the practicalities of the current public Vatican reaction. Effective responses to outbreaks of infectious diseases necessarily depend on pre-existing networks, and a pervasive view of Christianity as fundamentally foreign to Chinese culture means that Catholic social service infrastructure simply does not and is not permitted to exist in mainland China in the same way as it does elsewhere.
Christine Lee is an anthropologist of religion, particularly Catholicism. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at East China Normal University and an honorary research fellow at the University of St Andrews.
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