The Holy See and the People’s Republic of China announced a provisional agreement on questions of common interest on Saturday.
Under the terms of the deal, Pope Francis “readmit[s] to full ecclesial communion the remaining ‘official’ Bishops, ordained without Pontifical Mandate: H.E. Mgr Joseph Guo Jincai, H.E. Mgr Joseph Huang Bingzhang, H.E. Mgr Paul Lei Shiyin, H.E. Mgr Joseph Liu Xinhong, H.E. Mgr Joseph Ma Yinglin, H.E. Mgr Joseph Yue Fusheng, H.E. Mgr Vincent Zhan Silu and H.E. Mgr Anthony Tu Shihua, OFM (who, before his death on 4th January 2017, had expressed the desire to be reconciled with the Apostolic See).”
The Secretary of State of the Holy See, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, released a note explaining the purpose of the accord, and the hopes of the Holy See in making the agreement:
The objective of the Holy See is a pastoral one: the Holy See intends just to create the condition, or to help to create the condition, of a greater freedom, autonomy and organization, in order that the Catholic Church can dedicate itself to the mission of announcing the Gospel and also to contribute to the wellbeing and to the spiritual and material prosperity and harmony of the country, of every person and of the world as a whole.
Pope Francis has also taken the step of erecting a new suffragan diocese of Beijing, the See of Chengde, in the province of Hebei. Another statement from the Holy See Press Office details that the territory of the new diocese encompasses the current civil boundaries of Chengde City, including eight rural Districts: Chengde, Xinglong, Pingquan, Luanping, Longhua, Fengning, Kuancheng and Weichang — and three Administrative Divisions Shuangqiao, Shuangluan and Yingshouyingzikuang. There is no word on who the bishop of the newly erected Diocese of Chengde will be.
Sources inside the Vatican’s communications department do not expect the text of the agreement to be forthcoming, though Cardinal Parolin in his statement stressed the provisional nature of the accord:
[F]or the first time all the Bishops in China are in communion with the Bishop of Rome, with the Successor of Peter. And Pope Francis, like his immediate Predecessors, looks with particular care to the Chinese People. What is required now is unity, is trust and a new impetus; to have good Pastors, recognized by the Successor of Peter – by the Pope – and by the legitimate civil Authorities. And we believe – we hope, we hope – that the Agreement will be an instrument just for these objectives, for these aims, with the cooperation of all.
Press Office Director Greg Burke is with Pope Francis, who left Rome Saturday morning on a four-day trip to the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Burke told reporters travelling with the Holy Father on Saturday, “This is not the end of a process, it’s the beginning. This has been about dialogue: patient listening on both sides even when people come from very different standpoints.” Burke went on to say, “The objective of the accord is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.”
Rumors of the deal’s imminent signing have been swirling for months, and on Saturday the world got word the thing is done.
What, precisely, is done, remains unclear in several particulars — but the thing is being touted by both sides as provisional and subject to review. That the precise terms of the accord are to remain undisclosed for now makes it easier for both sides to fudge on their commitments to each other. The question analysts will be asking is: Cui malo? – that is, who stands to be hurt [more] by the circumstance?
Opponents of the deal say it surrenders the liberty of the Church.
The outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen, emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, has been strongly, even spectacularly, critical of the deal. In January, he crashed a weekly General Audience in Paul VI Hall to talk with Pope Francis about his concerns and those of the Catholic community that has been living precariously for decades as an underground Church, because of its members’ refusal to foreswear their loyalty to the Pope as the Church’s Supreme Pastor and Governor.
Earlier this week, Cardinal Zen told the Reuters news agency he thinks the Holy See’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, should step down. “He should resign,” Zen told Reuters, “I don’t think he has faith. He is just a good diplomat in a very secular, mundane meaning.”
Broadly speaking, critics of the deal are frustrated not so much by the fact of it, as by the manner of it — and by the impression it gives, of being another case in which Pope Francis talks a good game about speaking truth to power, and then does a deal with the powerful in the shade.
On the other hand, the crisis of unity in the Church in China is essentially a political one, the resolution of which cannot come without some deft diplomacy.
It is also true that the political culture of China has changed over the past several decades. Adrian Vermeule and Gladden Pappin have described the current state of Chinese political culture as having moved from doctrinaire Communism to “neo-authoritarian Confucianism”. Those authors are admittedly not China experts, but their description tracks with those of people who are. It is also worth noting that authoritarian Confucianism fairly describes the cultural attitude of the Chinese court when Matteo Ricci SJ undertook his great missionary efforts in the country — and found it to be fertile ground in which to plant the seeds of the Gospel.
Historically speaking, secular governments have rarely not had some say in the appointment of bishops. A few crowned heads of Europe had a veto over papal elections as recently as the early 20th century. A young Polish bishop named Karol Wojtyla came lead the Church of Krakow because the Communist authorities in his country rejected the Vatican’s first choice for the See.
The point is not that the deal is a good one — we do not know what kind of deal it is, and won’t until we’ve seen its terms in black and white and seen how well it operates in real life — and it has several strikes against it. The point is that the Church has a long and quietly distinguished history of preserving her institutions, her unity, and what practical liberty she can, in gravely adverse circumstances.
The question is not whether the Church can make a deal with a secular government, in which she cedes some decision-making power over episcopal appointments to the civil authority. The question is whether the Church can trust this Chinese government, and whether Chinese Catholics can trust this Papal administration not to give away the store.
It is said that no one should see how laws or sausages are made.
In this case, we are told the factory has been at work, three shifts a day — for months and months, if not for years — and we are told the product is the best possible, given the stuff of which the sausage is made. It remains to be seen whether anyone is really willing to make a meal of it.
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