Catholicism Columns Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The Vatican’s China deal is medieval (and that’s a good thing)

In this April 18, 2018, file photo, Pope Francis meets a group of faithful from China at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican. On Sept. 22, 2018, the Vatican announced it had signed a "provisional agreement" with China on the appointment of bishops, a breakthrough on an issue that for decades fueled tensions between the Holy See and Beijing and thwarted efforts toward diplomatic relations. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

(RNS) — Last week’s signing of a provisional agreement between the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China opened up another front for Pope Francis’ right-wing critics to do battle.

“An astonishing diplomatic blunder and betrayal: the Vatican gives over the power to control bishops’ appointments to a regime with a history — and current policy — of repressing the faith,” tweeted Catholic Culture’s Philip Lawler. Over at LifeSiteNews, Peter Kwasniewski claimed the agreement fits into Francis’ “larger agenda” of undermining “true orthodox” Catholic identity.

EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo started a Twitter spat with a Chicago priest who praised Francis for getting to a place with China that John Paul II had tried to get to for years without success. “Get where?” tweeted Arroyo. “To surrender the Apostolic authority to choose bishops? To hand the brave and suffering Chinese Underground Church over to the Chinese religious authorities?”

The redoubtable papal historian George Weigel compared the agreement to the Vatican’s 1933 concordat with Nazi Germany. “Vatican sources are calling the deal ‘a historic breakthrough,’ but the only thing ‘historic’ about it is the inability of Vatican diplomacy to learn from history,” he harrumphed.

And yet, among even the most stalwart anti-Franciscans there were recusants. “It is not because Francis has been such a bad Pope on so many levels that every single thing he does is bad,” the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli grudgingly conceded. “The China agreement has to be judged on a pragmatic basis — as so many other agreements the Church has signed in her history.”

Indeed. When you’ve got a church that’s been around for the better part of two millennia, there’s a lot of history to learn from.

The biggest bone of contention between Rome and Beijing has long been who gets to appoint bishops — an issue most thoroughly fought out nearly a millennium ago in what’s known as the Investiture Contest.

In the early Middle Ages, no one thought twice about kings or emperors deciding who the bishops in their territories would be and investing them with the pastoral staff and ring. To become a bishop was to become a powerful lord, and sovereigns couldn’t afford to let just anyone take charge of all those lands and people.

Then, in the middle of the 11th century, reformers in Rome came to believe there was something profoundly wrong with having secular authorities endow religious leaders with spiritual authority. Thus ensued the first great contest between papacy and empire, which included the famous scene in which the excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV walked barefoot through the Alpine snow to beg absolution from Pope Gregory VII.

The contest lasted decades, but eventually a compromise was worked out. Bishops would be canonically elected (popes didn’t appoint bishops in those days) and the emperor agreed no longer to invest them with staff and ring. But he was permitted to be present at the elections and to receive homage from nominees — which he could refuse. (Another candidate, please.)

In the hundreds of years since, Rome has made many such compromises, as it sought to secure acceptable episcopal leadership in its far-flung dominions. Despite the church’s disapproval (until recently) of countries that separated church and state, it was in places where the principle was applied most strictly that total control over bishops’ appointment came easiest. Elsewhere, not always so much.

Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of belief but goes a good way toward limiting religious activities and authority. Its last two sentences read:

No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.

Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.

It is possible to feel some sympathy for the second of these, given the extent to which Western colonialism and missionary activity went hand in hand in pre-communist China. Significantly, in his letter to Chinese Catholics last week, Pope Francis stressed the importance of cooperating with civil authorities to “help make it clear that the Church in China is not oblivious to Chinese history.”

The principal ecclesial effect of the agreement will be to unite the officially sanctioned Chinese Church and the unofficial underground church. Both communities use the same Bible and missal, and both pray for the Holy Father when celebrating the liturgy. In terms of faith and practice, they are one church.

Nevertheless, the undergrounders are distressed. Like the Donatists of old, who believed that clergy who had kowtowed to the Roman persecutors were illegitimate, they don’t want to acknowledge the legitimacy of the bishops already ordained without papal mandate in the official church — those whom Francis has now recognized and admitted to full communion with Rome. Complete integration of the two communities will probably take some time.

Exactly how bishops will be appointed has not been revealed, and may not even be specified in the provisional agreement, whose text has not been released. But in due course we’ll see that both sides are assured of a say, as they were in the Middle Ages.

In fact, Francis’ letter harks back to medieval times by putting the episcopal job search in the hands of the Catholic folk on the ground:

Yet an important part also falls to you, the bishops, priests, consecrated men and women, and lay faithful: to join in seeking good candidates capable of taking up in the Church the demanding and important ministry of bishop. It is not a question of appointing functionaries to deal with religious issues, but of finding authentic shepherds according to the heart of Jesus, men committed to working generously in the service of God’s people, especially the poor and the most vulnerable.

May their searches be successful.

(Mark Silk writes the Spiritual Politics column for RNS. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • Re: “Exactly how bishops will be appointed has not been revealed, and may not even be specified in the provisional agreement, whose text has not been released.” 

    Given that key details like this are unknown, or have yet to be worked out, I’d say any criticism of the agreement must be considered premature. 

  • The Church being what it is, will any of the details ever be known. The Church’s operating policy in most cases seems to be that as long as the Holy Oligarchs and the Holy Spirit know, the rest of us don’t need to know. We just need to leave it in their very capable hands. In very sensitive cases, it is likely the Holy Oligarchs don’t let the Holy Spirit know either.

  • “George Weigel compared the agreement to the Vatican’s 1933 concordat with Nazi Germany”

    A primary purpose of the concordat was to insure that the Vatican continued to receive its share of the Germany’s Catholic Tax. Perhaps one of the unknown details of the agreement with China has to do with money. This will probably be a detail that falls under the Pontifical Secret.

  • The “Pontifical Secret” is approximately the same as the American “Top Secret” and deals with diplomatic issues.

  • The Catholic Church is not a democracy or a representative republic.

    Few, if any, details are known about much of what goes on in America’s dealings with other nations.

    The phrase “the rest of us don’t need to know” implies “us” is the members of the Catholic Church.

    You’ve made it clear in your posts over the last three years that “us” does not include you.

  • Reading “Pope Francis’ right-wing critics” in the very sentence tips us off this not going to be a fair and balanced assessment by someone who knows his way around either the Catholic Church or church history.

    And the article doesn’t fail to confirm that impression.

  • Well done, Mark Silk. There have been different ways in which bishops were chosen over the long history of the Church. Making an agreement with the Chinese on a process that works is great. This is a culture based solution to a problem that has long plagued the Catholic Church in China.

    Now, here is hoping that the selection of candidates for bishop and the appointment of bishops begins to include some discussion with laity everywhere. Even better would be each diocese having a lay board that advises on the selection of a bishop and oversees his performance, with – oh – a “performance review” every three to five years sent to the Vatican, where it is not just thrown in the trash but actually cared about.

    Oh, well. I can dream.

  • Whereas you, Bob, know your way around the private parts of a Catholic Church very intimately, from providing “services” there.

  • In what way was Vigano’s admitted breaking of the Pontifical Secret related to diplomatic issues?

  • I was going to say the same thing. Between right wing, anti-Francis, traditionalists, we know exactly where this piece is going. He speaks of the Middle Ages as making this OK, but he does not connect the dots enough to discuss that during the same period those monarchies were already Christians unlike China which is not. Then of course there is the fact that those monarchies were still beholden to the pope themselves with the exception of Henry VIII’s issue.

    So I guess Europe, the US, and other countries that have a long history of Christianity can appoint rabbi’s, imams, maybe even the Dali Lama himself. There is nothing in China’s history that even remotely understands Catholicism except a few small groups that practice the faith. If you want my impression on all this, including this article, it smacks of those who supported the Iran deal which we are seeing now was a devastating policy, as well as the TPP that if implemented would have wreaked havoc with our economy. So I guess after all the bashing this articles tries to import on those of us who see how bad this really is, we are some how suppose to slink away because we have been slandered yet again rather than listen to the counter argument. Nothing has really changed has it.

  • Quite possibly has to do with money. That was one of my first thoughts. But like capitalism and globalism, maybe the Vatican has just discovered that China is an untapped resource they think they can manipulate and profit from.

  • Explain, first citing what you know of the “Pontifical Secret” so we can follow it, how Vigano violated it.

  • No, it is not a “culture based solution”.

    It is compliance with Chinese law and the rule of the Communist Party.

    The reason why bishops are not overseen by lay boards is that bishops are successors to the Apostles and the Catholic Church is hierarchical.

  • The Conflict of Investures between the popes and the German kings Henry IV and Henry V during the period 1075-1122 was only the occasion of a church-state conflict.

    The real issue was whether the imperial or the papal power was to be supreme in Christendom. Gregory VII claimed supreme authority in both spiritual and secular affairs. The successor of Peter could never act otherwise than according to the dictates of justice, goodness, and truth. Henry III had reduced the papacy to submission, which Gregory strove to reverse by setting the papacy over secular power.

    At the Lenten Roman Synod of 1075 Gregory withdrew “from the king the right of disposing of bishoprics in future, and relieved all lay persons of the investiture of churches”. Investiture at the time meant that on the death of a bishop or abbot, the king selected a successor and to bestow on him the ring and staff with the words: “Accipe ecclesiam” (accept this church).

    From the time of Otto the Great (936-72) the bishops had been princes of the empire and had become to a great extent feudal lords over great districts of the imperial territory. The control of economic and military power was of vital importance to the king. Henry IV felt he could not recognize the papal prohibition of investiture.

    The Church recognized the danger of undue secular influence, the king felt that he required control of the means of civil government, without which his authority was unsustainable.

    So Henry continued appointing bishops in Germany and in Italy. In December, 1075, Gregory delivered an ultimatum: the king was to observe the papal decree, as based on the laws and teachings of the Fathers, or he would be”excommunicated until he had given proper satisfaction, but also deprived of his kingdom without hope of recovering it”. Sharp personal reproval of his libertinism was included in the ultimatum.

    Henry arranged at the Diet of Worms in January, 1076, deposal of Gregory by twenty-six bishops on the ground that his elevation was irregular, and that consequently he had never been pope.

    At the next Lenten Synod in Rome (1076) Gregory declared: “I depose him (Henry) from the government of the whole Kingdom of Germany and Italy, release all Christians from their oath of allegiance, forbid him to be obeyed as king . . . and as thy successor bind him with the fetters of anathema”.

    Henry’s enemies, the Saxons and the lay princes of the empire, supported the pope, his bishops were divided in their allegiance, and the people deserted him.

    Royal support collapsed.

    In October the princes gathered at Tribur obliged Henry to apologize humbly to the pope, to promise for the future obedience and reparation, and to refrain from all actual government, seeing that he was excommunicate. They decreed also that if within a year and a day the excommunication was not removed, Henry should forfeit his crown. They also resolved to invite the Pope to visit Germany in the spring to settle the conflict between the king and the princes.

    Henry now proposed to present himself as a penitent before the pope, and thereby obtain pardon. He crossed Mont Cenis in the depth of winter and was soon at the Castle of Canossa, to which Gregory had withdrawn on learning of the king’s approach. Henry spent three days at the entrance to the fortress, barefoot and in the garb of a penitent. He was finally admitted, and pledged himself to recognize the mediation and decision of the pope in his quarrel with the princes, and was then released from excommunication.

    Bismarck made Canossa the proverbial term to indicate the humiliation of the civil power before the ambitious and masterful Church when he asserted Prussian government control over the churches during his Kulturkampf from 1871 to 1891.

    Practically, however, the civil authority continued to propose bishops for the Pope to accept for a variety of practical reasons, not the least of which was the impossibility of direct contact between every candidate for a bishopric and the Holy Father.

    For example, at the death of Leo XII in 1829, 555 of 646 bishops in the Latin Church owed appointments to state patronage.

  • So the King bowed to the Pope (because his loyal subjects abandoned him). A matter of power. Perhaps you’ll look up the times the Pope caved because his subjects (the faithful) abandoned him. It’s a matter of power. Silk’s point is that sharing power is a practical solution that works. I would add that most of Christian mission efforts down through history worked because we convinced the “king” of the truth of Christianity or that at least we would continue to be loyal subjects and contribute to the health and welfare of the state.

  • “Despite the church’s disapproval (until recently) of countries that separated church and state” is true in a very specific sense.

    In Christian belief all authority comes from above, ultimately from God.

    And all law comes from God as well as the Creator of all that exists, including the laws of nature.

    In the conflict over investiture the Church declared it was not subservient to the State in matters of religion.

    On the other hand, a State which declares it is not subservient to God from which it derives it power, and whose laws should reflect God’s laws is also unacceptable.

    That is the special sense of separation of church and state which the Catholic Church opposes.

    It declares laws such as forced abortions in China, euthanasia and abortion in the West, the Holocaust, and the like violations of the natural law which should unite church and state.

  • So the King bowed to the Church’s authority over itself in the person of Gregory VII.

    Silk’s point appears in his second to last paragraph, suggesting this agreement is “putting the episcopal job search in the hands of the Catholic folk on the ground”.

    Of course it’s not.

    It is putting the episcopal job search in the hands of the State, in this case specifically the Communist party.

    It does not involve “convinc(ing) the ‘king’ of the truth of Christianity”.

  • We see examples of the state and religion accommodating each other throughout history with compromise on how each institution operates on the same turf. Who won or lost out on this China deal will show itself over time. Its just business and politics which both China and Rome have practiced for centuries especially when religion and the state are extension of each other. We see it in the US with who has access to the government or which criminal or civil offenses committed by favored religions will civil authorities ignore.

  • So would ultra-conservative (as opposed to merely conservative) do? And that one word shuts your mind llike a bear trap to the reasoned presentation that follows. You make your weak case on a minor detail. You totally fail to address the author’s arguments. Again, either a deficient approach, or a deliberately malicious approach.

  • The pope’s claim to supremacy in the secular sphere was based on the utter fraud mis-labeled The Donation of Constantine.

  • False. Read the agreement. The Catholics of the diocese have a role (as was the case for a 1000 years), the Pope has a role, and the Chinese state has a role. Yes, the China state remembers how recently Christian missionaries were the agen5ts of western empires. They do want that to happen again.