The purposes and formal values of the Catholic Church and the Chinese Communist Party are in many respects direct opposites. The former is now a spiritual and not as it once was also a temporal (and even a military) power (although it is very wealthy), whereas the latter commands today the fastest rising temporal (including military) power on Earth. Nevertheless they are similar in that they both lay claim to a universal role in and validity for prescribing how humans should live. They are both examples of organisations that exercise autocratic and sometimes dictatorial control from the center. It is therefore interesting to consider the similarities and differences in their governance, behavior, priorities and historical records and to wonder how long or if they can maintain their legitimacy. Here are a few comparisons and contrasts.
Similarities between the Catholic Church and the Chinese Communist Party
- Both claim that they have a monopoly on truth, although the Communist Party is more modest since it does not claim that its doctrines extend to a next life as well as this one
- Both influence the daily lives of more than a billion humans who do not vote for or have any say in their leaders or decisions.
- Both engage in closed internal debates and struggles for power that may lead to changes in direction – or not – and are hard for outsiders to follow.
- Both are strongly associated with sex and financial scandals
- Neither has prominent women in their leadership ranks – the Catholic Church is more extreme or absolutist in this respect than the Communist Party
- Both are focusing increasing attention on populous, resource-rich developing economies and striving to win more influence there.
- Both are troubled about threats to their centralized power from the ideas of individual freedom, choice, democracy and tolerant social attitudes found in the U.S. and Europe.
- Both say they must approve the appointment of Catholic bishops in China.
- Both have at various times been the object of considerable hostility in the U.S. and considered as a threat to the American way of life.
- Both have at various times tortured and killed people whose views differed from the official line and/or who fell out of favor with the powers in charge at that time.
Differences between the Catholic Church and the Chinese Communist Party
- The vestments of the Catholic hierarchy are much more colorful than the somber business suits of the Chinese Communist leadership
- The ethnic origins of the Catholic hierarchy are more diverse than those of the Chinese Communist leaders
- Until the abdication of Pope Benedict, the leader of the Catholic Church, once elected, was thought to be there for life, whereas the current practice of the Chinese Communists allows their leader only two consecutive five-year terms.
- The Catholic Church is about 2,000 years old, while the Chinese Communist Party was only founded 92 years ago
- There are many more Catholics in the U.S. than Communists
- The heroes of the Chinese Communist Party are predominantly (but not exclusively) Chinese, whereas Italians are heavily overrepresented among the saints of the Catholic Church, followed by other European countries bordering the Mediterranean such as Spain.
- Today’s U.S. Supreme Court has a majority of Catholic judges but no supporters of the Chinese Communist party.
- In developing countries the Catholic Church is mainly competing with Islam and other Christian churches for adherents, whereas the Chinese Communists are competing for natural resources and geopolitical and commercial power.
- Theoretically the National People’s Congress can force the resignation of the President of China, whereas the Pope is only answerable to himself (and God).
- The Chinese Communists have changed their policies and admitted errors more rapidly, (e.g. some of Mao Zedong’s within a few years) than the Catholic Church has repented for its transgressions, (e.g. anti-Semitism, that persisted over many centuries). There is no exact equivalent among Communists of the dogma of papal infallibility that applies when the Pope defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals (however papal infallibility was only defined dogmatically relatively recently during the First Vatican Council of 1870, which was held during the turbulent and revolutionary period immediately preceding the Franco-Prussian war, although it had been defended before then, notably during the Counter-Reformation).
The Catholic Church and the Chinese Communist Party both face serious questions about their legitimacy in the long-term, the former among other factors because of its continuing resistance to treating slightly more than half the world’s population as fully equal in rights to the rest, and the latter because of the challenge of whether their form of central political and financial control can coexist in the long run with economic and social development. It would be foolish to bet against the 2,000 year old Catholic Church which has survived and grown and maintained legitimacy in the minds and hearts of hundreds of millions of people across many generations of technological and economic progress and within many diverse human cultures. Perhaps it will be able to exploit the dogma of infallibility to change its mind infallibly about some of its more ludicrous and even repulsive dogmas. After all the Mormons enabled Utah to qualify for statehood in the U.S. by banning polygamy in 1890 on the basis of a timely divine revelation, although this had been a core holy doctrine enunciated (and practiced) by this church’s founder. As for the Chinese Communist party it can draw on centuries of Chinese traditions, longer even than the history of the Catholic Church, that may enable it to transform itself in time to become a major continuing, but hopefully not eventually a monopoly in the Chinese polity. It is unhealthy when any one set of dogmatically defined , allegedly unchallengeable doctrines is able to exercise unrestricted sway over a population, whether the Catholic Church formerly in many parts of Ireland or Spain and Latin America, or the Communists in Eastern Europe.