The Vatican’s just-renewed agreement with China follows an ancient pattern

It’s the last full week of presidential campaigning, so Americans might be excused for having missed news that the Vatican renewed its preliminary agreement with China over the appointment of bishops. The agreement has drawn the ire of many American conservatives, not least Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who charges that a compromise with Beijing erodes Rome’s moral witness.

Pompeo’s concerns deserve to be taken seriously. They reflect not only the view of the Trump administration, but that of many Catholics, including Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong, and other senior churchmen. There is no denying that in Beijing, Rome faces an authoritarian regime that has persecuted people of faith, Catholics especially, from its founding.

Yet Americans should also consider what the church sees when she looks to China with eyes ultimately fixed on transcendent, theological horizons. The key here is that the agreement is sharply limited in scope. It primarily addresses the appointment of bishops, the very composition of the church herself.

For the church, what matters above all is the mystical embodiment of Christ in the structure of pope, bishops and laity. By giving priority to the question of bishops in the preliminary agreement, the Holy See merely follows the proper sequence of events from the church’s standpoint: First, the lines of authority have to be made clear; then, in subsequent talks, other aspects of the relationship may be clarified.

Critics go wrong assuming the agreement is some sort of general charter governing relations between Beijing and the Roman church. The agreement isn’t a concordat. A concordat involves the establishment of official diplomatic relations. The Holy See, which still recognizes Taiwan, is the most important sovereign entity not to have diplomatic relations with China, and that remains true under this agreement.

Rather, according to the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the agreement merely intends to solve a problem that has created pastoral confusion for Chinese Catholics: namely, the fact that for decades there were two churches in China, one underground and repressed; the other officially recognized by Beijing, whose bishops had been appointed by the Communist Party.

After 1949, Beijing unilaterally severed relationships with the Holy See, which recognized Taiwan as the rightful government of China. The Communist Chinese then established the Chinese Patriotic Association, and those who remained in communion with Rome went underground to practice the faith under conditions of intense repression.

The CPA continued to consecrate bishops validly, but illegitimately assigned them to dioceses without jurisdiction. Underground bishops consecrated their successors, though also not without irregularities — for example, seeking the Holy See’s approval only retroactively. In the 1980s, however, illicitly consecrated CPA bishops began to seek, and did eventually receive, communion with the Holy See via private letters to the pope.

Prior to the 2018 agreement, only seven living CPA-appointed bishops still lacked approval from the Holy See and thus needed the lifting of their excommunications as well as a canonical mission to govern their dioceses lawfully. China had, however, been threatening to illegitimately appoint more state-backed bishops in the absence of an agreement, portending a greater and possibly permanent schism.

Over the course of recent decades, the underground and CPA communities had also become blurred in other ways. Many ordinary Chinese growing up in CPA communities didn’t think of themselves as members of a state-run church, but as Catholics in union with Rome. The situation had become intolerable and, indeed, dangerous, given the confusion and risk of schism. For the sake of Catholics in China, a resolution of uncertain and overlapping jurisdictions was necessary.

The fact that the Chinese government now has a shared consultative role in the appointment of Catholic bishops offends Western sensibilities. But remember: It took 1,000 years of struggle to wrest the appointment of bishops away from government interference in the West. The starting point — clarifying who is a legitimate bishop — has always been the same.

And there have been benefits to Rome. Since the preliminary agreement was struck two years ago, China has allowed elections of two new bishops and recognized five Vatican-appointed bishops, whose formal installations had been impossible — mostly recently, Francis Xavier Jin Yangke, who was installed as bishop of Ningbo in August.

The Holy See has likewise lifted the excommunication of seven bishops. In several dioceses, competing jurisdictional claims have been resolved. While many wait for further clarifications in the years ahead, failure to reach agreement in 2018 could easily have proved catastrophic for ordinary Chinese Catholics.

In this unique diplomatic situation, Catholics should take note of the agreement’s modest scope. The long-term possibilities for the church in China are currently wide open. But in the Vatican’s view, the crucial first step is to bring the household of the church itself into theological order, to prepare for whatever may come. Catholics and others should try to see the deep, and ancient, theological and political logic in that approach.

Gladden Pappin is an assistant professor of politics at the University of Dallas. Adrian Vermeule is Ralph S. Tyler, Jr. Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School.

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