It is never a good idea to sign a deal just for the sake of signing a deal
The Vatican is set to sign an agreement with China by the end of the month, one that cedes control over the appointment of bishops to Beijing. In return, we are told, Beijing has agreed to recognize the pope as the head of China’s Catholics.
From my position as a longtime observer of the machinations of the Chinese Party-State, this seems like a bad deal. The pope is ceding his very real authority to name bishops to China’s communist authorities in return for the promise of symbolic recognition as the titular head of all Catholics in China. Might he not be giving up something for nothing?
The Vatican originally proposed that China follow the terms of an agreement it had reached with the Vietnamese government over the appointment of bishops. Under its terms, the Vatican and the Vietnamese authorities, working together, draw up a list of candidates. The Vatican then chooses someone from the list who, once Hanoi ratifies the choice, is consecrated as a bishop by the pope. Such a model clearly preserves papal authority.
This “Vietnam model” was rejected by China, however. As the official Global Times later reported (italics added), “[s]uch a model was not accepted by China when it was tested in the country in 2005, as the Chinese authorities want total control over choosing candidates.”
Beijing went on to insist upon a “Chinese model,” under the terms of which the communist authorities alone will nominate a potential candidate for bishop. The pope must then approve or reject that candidate. If he vetoes the first candidate, Beijing will nominate another.
The pope’s “veto power,” however, is not unlimited.
As a Chinese official familiar with the negotiations was quoted as saying, “[w]e cannot submit endless candidate lists to the Vatican if the pontiff keeps saying no. We may have to appoint bishops unapproved by the pontiff after a set number of rounds of negotiations. Such bishops may not be legitimate under the Church doctrine, but they can still give Church services to Chinese Catholics.”
In other words, the pope may veto an obviously unsuitable candidate or two, but Beijing has made it clear that there is a limit to the number of times a papal veto can be used. It has also limited the amount of time that the Vatican has to respond once a candidate’s name is submitted.
This means that at the end of the day, it is the communist authorities, and not Pope Francis, who will have the final say over who becomes a bishop in the Chinese Catholic Church.
The Vatican is reportedly prepared to make other concessions as well.
Perhaps the most important is that Pope Francis will formally consecrate as bishops seven men who were made “bishops” by the communist authorities over the past decade. All of these men have been previously rejected by the Vatican as bishop candidates for various reasons having to do with personal morality, public actions, or both.
In a further concession, the Vatican has promised that the pope will lift the excommunication of the seven illicit “bishops” of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association even before the new agreement is signed.
Second, the pope will order two bishops of the underground Church, who have faithfully served for decades under intense persecution, to hand over their dioceses to bishops appointed by the communist authorities. Shantou bishop Zhuang Jianjian has been ordered to retire, a decision that has caused enormous pain to the local Church, while Mindong bishop Guo Xijin has been told that he will be made an “auxiliary” of the Shantou diocese he has long headed.
The fate of the forty or so other underground bishops is unknown, although the Times reports that the communist authorities are expected to recognize the “underground” bishop of Qiqihar, in Heilongjiang province, Bishop Wei Jingyi.
Not long ago, I was told by a senor Vatican official that the signing of a formal agreement with the Chinese Party-State would give Rome the leverage it needs to improve conditions for Catholics in China. His view of the trustworthiness of Chinese officials struck me as naïve, especially in view of the many agreements that Beijing has signed – only to violate – over the years.
It seems to me even more unwise to move forward with an agreement at the present time, when the communist authorities are engaged in a widespread crackdown on all forms of religious expression in China.
Will the same people who are tearing down churches and burning Bibles suddenly cease and desist simply because they have signed an agreement with the Vatican? It seems unlikely, especially given that new regulations restricting religious activities were just announced on February 1 of this year and are being carried out with ever increasing fervor.
To make matters worse, the purported Vatican-China agreement almost seems deliberately designed to be nonbinding, since its terms are to be kept secret from the world in general and from Chinese Catholics in particular. How can it be used as “leverage” if its terms are known only to a handful of people in Rome?
The same senior Vatican official insisted that, since “we will be signing an agreement with Xi Jinping himself … will they not abide by it?”
I quickly recited to him a litany of agreements that the Chinese government has signed, only to violate. These included the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Sino-British Agreement over Hong Kong, and the World Trade Organization covenants.
It is also clear that Xi Jinping simply will not tolerate “foreign interference in internal Chinese matters.” As I write in Bully of Asia, Xi is channeling the late Chairman Mao and, like Mao, is carrying out a Cultural Revolution in China to eliminate all religions. If the Vatican thinks the proposed agreement will put it in a position to aid the Chinese Catholic Church, much less direct its activities, it is in for a disappointment.
The Chinese Party-State, on the other hand, will undoubtedly use the pretext of a Vatican-China agreement to increase its persecution of the Underground Church in China. It will insist that each and every one of China’s 12 million Catholics worship only in churches approved by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. It will use the borrowed authority of the Vatican to further clamp down on unregistered churches in so-called underground communities led by bishops loyal only to Rome.
Those in the Underground Church, who have suffered so much over the decades, may be in for yet another season of suffering.
Steven W. Mosher is the president of the Population Research Institute and the author of Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order.