By Anthony Tokarz
In late January 2018, Italian newspapers broke the news that Pope Francis would agree to recognize seven Chinese bishops appointed by that nation’s ruling Communist Party. This question—who has the right to appoint priests and bishops, and for what group of people—has festered throughout the history of Sino-Vatican relations. Now, observers as diverse as the American Wall Street Journal to the Polish Polonia Christiana have expressed concern over what they decry as Pope Francis’s capitulation to the Chinese Communist Party over the investiture of bishops. These observers make correct assessments of the feeling of betrayal held by many members of the Catholic Church in China who refuse to submit to the Chinese government on structural and ecclesiastical issues. However, whether one supports or opposes Pope Francis’s recent decision to replace two Vatican-appointed bishops with Communist Party nominees depends on whether one sees the importance of the Catholic Church’s mission over the long or short term.
In 1951, the same year that Chinese forces occupied Tibet, Chairman Mao expelled the Papal Nuncio, Antonio Riberi, and the Vatican’s entire diplomatic staff along with all the missionaries active in the country as part of the crackdown on organized religion that would set the stage for the Cultural Revolution fifteen years later. Mao had seen religion, as well as any institution that undermined absolute loyalty to his Communist Party, as a potent threat to the identity and longevity of the new China he had established. Seven years later, he eased his stance by establishing the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) as the formal, Party-run governing body of the Catholic Church in China. He tasked this organization with registering and overseeing the activity of China’s Catholics, for fear that the Pope would wield influence over his people.
Mao’s gambit in effect split the Catholic Church in two: today, about 5.3 million Chinese Catholics have registered with the CPCA, while the rest have practiced their faith in the so called “underground Church”, which swears fealty to the Pope and rejects the Communist Party in its self-anointed role as the regional authority over ecclesiastical matters. As a result, the underground Church rejects priests ordained and bishops invested by the Chinese government, recognizing instead presbyters ordained and invested by the Pope himself. As a result, the Chinese government has considered this abrogation of its authority, and has cracked down on the underground Church and persecuted its members in an effort to bring them under its control. Popes, from Pius XII then to Francis today, have attempted to assert their traditional, canonical privilege to appoint Church leaders, but met with nothing other than resistance on the part of the Communist government.
As late as 2016, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and representatives of the Chinese government seemed to near a compromise wherein the Pope would have the right to invest a bishop chosen from a list put forward by the Vatican and vetted by the Chinese government. This would have placated the Communist Party, which fears that the world’s largest Church would otherwise undermine its authority over the world’s largest country while also forcing the Communist Party to acknowledge the Pope’s primacy over the Catholic Church in China. These claims resemble those of Popery, which nativists and know-nothings levelled against Catholics at the height of anti-Catholicism in the United States. This seemed a marked improvement over the Pope’s current irrelevance to CPCA decisions. In fact, such an agreement would have further pleased both parties, as Pope Francis would rise from the diplomatic table with a strengthened hand in the affairs of the Chinese Catholic Church, CPCA and underground, while China would gain the ability to point to the agreement in order to deflect international criticism for its human rights abuses.
The author of this piece favors an agreement along the lines of that outlined above. Although it would stoke resentment amongst members of the underground Church, it would also force the Communist Party to make a major concession to the Papacy. Moreover, while it is true that underground priests have threatened secession from the Roman Catholic Church should such agreement pass, and that Catholicism has seen significant growth in adherents throughout China because it has refused to bow to Communist demands, an agreement of this sort would strengthen Pope Francis’s image as a master of realpolitik and unlock greater resources for evangelization and Catholic activity. In other words, an agreement of the variety rumored to have emerged from Sino-Vatican relations last year would most likely have given Pope Francis greater power over fewer Chinese Catholics, as well as new tools to convert more Catholics.
The author of this piece has had the good fortune to speak to an active Catholic missionary in China about the negotiations. That same missionary made clear his belief that there exist many devoted Catholics in the mainstream CPCA Church, and that a stronger relationship between this Church and the underground would in turn strengthen the faith of both by providing unique testimonies and witnesses to the faith under different circumstances.
However, such an agreement as appears to have emerged in 2018 is unacceptable; Pope Francis seems to have signaled his capitulation and complacency regarding his own status in the power structure of the Catholic Church in China. Pope Francis must force the Communist Party to recognize his unique privilege to ordain priests and appoint bishops as the Vicar of Christ on Earth and undisputed leader of the Catholic Church and its faithful throughout the whole world. Since Pentecost, the Catholic Church has embraced the particular practices and parochial flavors of regional Churches throughout the world. China is no exception to this rule, since the missionary activity of Matteo Ricci four centuries ago. The Pope must not lose the resolve to force the Communist Party to accept this fact. The Communist Party of China may lay claim to limited authority over Church organization as a unique aspect of the Catholic Church in China, but it cannot entertain the fantasy that it reigns supreme over the Pope within that regional Church.
On a closing note, Pope Francis, who has played up the importance of evangelization and outreach in his Pontificate, must recognize and adhere to the reality of evangelization and outreach. He would do well to look at St. Paul of Tarsus, or his predecessor, Pope St John Paul II, as paragons of the process of evangelization. Wherever St Paul went to announce the Gospel, riots erupted. Wherever Pope St John Paul II went to announce the Gospel, authoritarianism trembled and fell. Neither compromised the privileges afforded to them as missionaries—especially the occasional necessity of offending their interlocutors and refusing to compromise. The Truth is total, or it is not Truth—Pope Francis, formed in Peronist Argentina, must recognize this and accept the consequences.