Strange bedfellows Pope Francis and Xi Jinping champion religion over the love of money

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Image: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin/Giampiero Sposito

The Roman Catholic Church hasn’t found usually much common ground in its icy relationship with China and its Communist Party rulers, but are the two secretive institutions moving, albeit unwittingly, closer together? Recent comments by Pope Francis and officials close to Chinese president Xi Jinping that decry the abandonment of moral traditions for the unbridled pursuit of wealth sound eerily similar.

Xi “is troubled by what he sees as the country’s moral decline and obsession with money,” three sources with ties to China’s leadership told Reuters on Sunday, and he hopes the “traditional cultures” of China’s three largest faiths—Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism—”will help fill a void that has allowed corruption to flourish.”

Similarly, Pope Francis made headlines last week by lashing out at “an economic system which has at its center an idol called money,” and called for “financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone.” He concluded: “Money has to serve, not to rule.”

Xi has made long made warnings about “moral” problems in China, usually meaning corruption, that could threaten the party’s rule. But his potential willingness to let religion take a bigger role in China—at least according to Reuters’ sources—is a new development, and it is not yet clear what such a move would mean.

The government says there are only 50 million practitioners of Buddhism and Taoism, 23 million Protestants, 21 million Muslims and 5.5 million Catholics among China’s 1.35 billion people. According to Reuters, independent experts put the mark much higher—100 to 300 million followers of Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religions. China’s constitution protects “normal religious activity,” but in practice that means worshiping only at state-sanctioned religious organizations like the “Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association,” which does not recognize the pope, nor is it recognized by Rome. Religious Chinese are also not allowed to join the Communist Party.

That stance is unlikely to change much in the short term, as maintaining social stability remains the top goal of party officials.

“The influence of religions will expand, albeit subtly,” one of Reuters’ sources said. “Traditional cultures will not be comprehensively popularized, but attacks on them will be avoided.”

As for Pope Francis, his remarks on wealth have centered largely on those who have been ill-served by the globalized economy, critiquing “ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.”

China’s rulers would presumably be cool with preserving state control of the economy, and with Pope Francis’ assertion that “where there is no work, there is no dignity.”

But their common ground with the Pope can only go so far. He probably lost them with this comment last week: “We can never serve God and money at the same time. It is not possible: either one or the other. This is not Communism. It is the true Gospel!”