Historic news for the Catholic Church in China:
The Vatican said Saturday that it had reached a provisional deal with the Chinese government to end a decades-old power struggle over the right to appoint bishops in China. It was the Communist country’s first formal recognition of the pope’s authority within the Roman Catholic Church in the world’s most populous nation, Vatican officials said.
Under the deal, Pope Francis recognized the legitimacy of seven bishops appointed by the Chinese government. Because they had not been selected by the Vatican, they had previously been excommunicated.
The Church and China severed diplomatic ties in 1951. According to the article, China would require the Church to cut off relations with Taiwan as a condition of normalizing relations with Beijing.
Conservatives in the Church, who are trying to weaken Pope Francis, were “deeply opposed” to the agreement with China, per the NY Times.
There are around 10 to 12 million Catholics in China, split between those who attend “underground” churches run by bishops appointed by Rome but not recognized by the Communist Party, and those who attend state-approved churches under the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. The Vatican seeks to heal the rift between the two communities.
Some have condemned this secret, provisional agreement. Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired archbishop of Hong Kong (described as the most senior Catholic cleric in China), calls it “an incredible betrayal“:
“The consequences will be tragic and long lasting, not only for the church in China but for the whole church because it damages the credibility. Maybe that’s why they might keep the agreement secret.”
Cardinal Zen demands the resignation of the pope’s secretary of state, who was among the chief negotiators of the deal. Sinologist Francesco Sisci has a very different view:
The core of the agreement is a matter of principle on which Beijing has opened its doors. Beijing has recognized the religious bearing of the Pope in China. It’s a concession that had not been granted by the Emperors at the times of Jesuits, thus it is of major import. […]
[This agreement] paves the way to greater religious freedom in China.
One wonders about the fate of the underground bishops under this murky rapprochement. Cardinal Zen fears that many of the underground Catholics could reject the deal and “do something irrational.” Throwing this community under the bus to strike a deal with the atheist Communist Party would not have been my preferred course of action, but we don’t yet know the details of the arrangement. In any case, the Church appears to be playing a long game here, and there is plenty of historical precedent for this sort of thing. The Times again:
But the church has been making concessions to secular powers since before Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne in the year 800. In the 16th century, the pope gave a French king the right to appoint major clerics, and Pope Pius VII signed a similar agreement with Napoleon in the 19th century.
The Vatican accepted limitations to operate under Communist governments such as Vietnam’s. Mr. Melloni also recalled the church’s Ostpolitik, in which it dealt with communist regimes in Europe’s east during the Cold War.
What is not said is that the Chinese authorities will still be first in line in the selection of future pastors, with only a feeble right of veto granted to the pope on any candidates who may not be to his liking.
In this sense, the accord can rightly be defined as “historic,” because it marks a sensational about-face in the journey that the Catholic Church has made over centuries of history to free itself from submission to political powers, particularly in the “investiture” of its pastors.
And to begin with, Pope Francis has put the accord into practice from the day it was signed, exonerating from excommunication seven “official” bishops installed by the regime and until now never recognized by the Holy See, a couple of them with lovers and children.