By David G. Bjornstrom

China and the Vatican

August 17, 2021
Column: Catching Air
Father Paul Mariani, S.J., professor at Santa Clara University, gave a fascinating talk at the Napa Institute Summer Conference on the subject of China and the Vatican. Father Mariani’s presentation centered on a 2018 “provisional accord” between China and the Vatican that was apparently designed to work toward normalizing relations and resolving issues over the appointment of Chinese bishops.
Father Mariani gave a very brief history of the Chinese leadership up to the current “president for life,” Xi Jinping, who came to power at about the same time as Pope Francis.

Xi Jinping’s stated goal

Faced with major demographic, economic, environmental and social problems, Xi Jinping’s stated goal is to rejuvenate China with strong authoritarian leadership by the Communist Party, making it strong internally and projecting new strength outward to the rest of the world.
China is officially atheist and acts as a “surveillance state” to monitor and control its people, including cameras on the street corners, in stores and in churches.
Despite China’s official atheism, Christianity is growing in China. The majority of Chinese Christians are Protestant, 60 million or more, but there are also 10-12 million Catholics in China. These Chinese Catholics are less than 1% of the population but they can’t be ignored by China since the Vatican represents 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide.
Catholics in Communist China
Father Mariani noted that China’s Catholics are divided into “patriotic” communities that are sanctioned by the government and “underground” Catholic communities that are not approved. There are 100 bishops in China, including 63 who are recognized by both China and the Vatican, 30 underground bishops who operate outside state control and who are not recognized by China, and 7 “illegitimate” bishops who were appointed by China but not recognized by the Vatican for various reasons.
Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI engaged in a form of “quiet diplomacy” with the Chinese leadership over many years.
Pope Francis has now gone a step further with his 2018 provisional accord. The exact contents of this agreement are secret, but it appears to give the Chinese government the right to select bishops subject to the pope having some final say. The exact process for naming and vetting candidates is not clear. As part of the agreement, the Vatican agreed to also accept the seven formerly “illegitimate” Chinese bishops.

Pope Francis and China 2018 agreement

The 2018 agreement has met with very mixed reviews.
The former director of the Holy See Press Office defended the agreement, stating that “the objective of the accord is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops that are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by the Chinese authorities.”
In stark contrast, Cardinal Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, has referred to the 2018 accord as “the murder of the underground Church.” Cardinal Zen says it is a feigned reconciliation with Rome that gives the Chinese government a pretext to persecute Catholics outside the state sanctioned “patriotic” Church.

Father Mariani also noted that the agreement seems to conflict with the Second Vatican Council which said that the Church has “exclusive power to appoint and install bishops” and that “no rights or privileges be conceded to civil authorities in regard to the election, nomination or presentation to bishoprics.”

This was also written into Canon 377 §5 of the 1983  Code of Canon Law. The reasons are obvious when we consider some of the past abuses when kings in Europe were essentially allowed to pick bishops.

Father Mariani in his talk questioned what each side received from the 2018 agreement and what common ground, if any, exists between the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party to justify a hope that this will be a productive first step.
It’s a valid question, echoed by others who wonder the same thing.
China probably believes the agreement legitimizes its stature over the Church, and if Cardinal Zen is right, it will be used as leverage to rein in the underground Catholics. It would be naive to think that the officially and aggressively atheist Chinese government truly desires any positive outcome for the Church, especially when for decades the Chinese government has seen the underground Church as a thorn in its side and has tried to bring the Church to heel.
The Vatican, on the other hand, may view the agreement as part of its “long game” in China, in the meantime relieving some pressure on Chinese Catholics.
The Vatican hopes to eventually normalize the status of the 30 underground bishops who are not currently recognized by the Chinese government. The Vatican probably also hopes this may lead eventually to full diplomatic relations with Beijing so that honest and fruitful discussions can follow. The question, of course, is whether those hopes are realistic.
Ultimately, more questions than answers.

David G. Bjornstrom is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar and retired California attorney at law with 38 years specializing in business, estate and... MORE »

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