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A New Pope’s More Liberal Sway in China

Cardinal John Tong Hon attends a mass at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City

Photograph by Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

Cardinal John Tong Hon attends a mass at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City

Each year Cardinal John Tong Hon, the 74-year-old Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, records a brief videotaped Christmas message that fuses Catholic themes with local issues facing people in Hong Kong and mainland China. Recurrent themes include the sustaining power of families, the “virtues of sincerity, love and understanding,” and the need for affordable housing in the expensive and cramped city. Last year, Tong’s message focused on marriage: “In accord with Catholic teaching, we assert that marriage is a mutual self-giving and lifelong commitment between a man and a woman.”

This year, however, Cardinal Tong got a new, more progressive boss in Rome. Since assuming the papacy in March, Pope Francis has struck a different chord on gay rights. “If someone is gay, and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” the new pontiff told reporters in July, a shift in rhetoric that inspired the Advocate, an American LGBT magazine, to name Pope Francis as its “Person of the Year.”

Cardinal Tong’s tone has shifted accordingly. In his 2013 Christmas address, Tong omitted any mention of church catechisms or assertions about who should marry. Instead, he emphasized compassion, rather than prescriptions or prohibitions. “I think intimate family relationships can strengthen our self-confidence and help us cherish our hope in life,” Tong said. “Even though life has its ups and downs, a close-knit family can be like a harbor in a storm.”

In November, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, spoke to Vatican Insider about the impact of Pope Francis in greater China, where the PRC government maintains its own “Patriotic Catholic Association” without ties to the Vatican, but millions of ordinary Catholics still recognize the Pope’s authority. “In China, all those who can see him [Pope Francis] in some way, or can read about him somewhere, are really enthusiastic. They see a person who really wants to be close to the ordinary people, to the poor people,” said Cardinal Zen.

Another aspect of Cardinal Tong’s address this year also attracted attention in Hong Kong: “Our hope is that celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ will help us work together in building happy families and a free democratic society.” Thus far, Pope Francis has avoided making any explicit statements about the Chinese government or the Vatican’s long-standing rift with Beijing.

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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