For years, the media have reported that the Holy See is “poised” to make a deal with China over bishops’ appointments. Last Saturday, it finally happened. The Vatican announced that it had signed a “provisional agreement” with the communist authorities, but offered few specifics. It shared just two significant details: that the Pope has created a new suffragan diocese of the See of Beijing and has readmitted to full communion eight bishops (one deceased) who were ordained without papal approval.
Is this a far-sighted move that will reconcile the divided Chinese Church, or a shameful betrayal of “underground” Catholics? The answer seems to depend on which historical precedent we compare it to: post-revolutionary France or 1930s Germany.
Some suggest that the deal is similar to the 1801 Concordat between Pius VII and Napoleon. Then, the pope made extraordinary concessions to the secular regime, asking French bishops to resign their sees and permitting the government to nominate their successors. While the Vatican appeared to concede too much, the agreement arguably helped to revive French Catholicism after its near suppression.
Others compare the China deal to the notorious Reichskonkordat of 1933. The treaty, between the Holy See and the emergent Nazi Germany, supposedly guaranteed the Church’s rights while banning clergy from party politics. The regime immediately began to violate the treaty, prompting an exasperated Pope Pius XI to issue the anti-Nazi encyclical Mit brennender Sorge four years later.
So which does the China pact most closely resemble: the 1801 Concordat or the Reichskonkordat? It is impossible to say, because we know so little about the precise arrangements. Besides, all historical analogies are imperfect. Contemporary China is neither Napoleonic France nor Nazi Germany. It is a 1.4 billion-strong, rapidly modernising country that is projecting its growing power around the world, while tightening restrictions at home. The ruling Communist Party seems to have learned that it cannot simply eliminate Christianity. Instead, it seeks to contain it with a combination of red tape and brute force.
When the Vatican announced the agreement, it did not claim that it had secured a future of peace and prosperity for China’s at least 10 million Catholics. Choosing his words carefully, Cardinal Pietro Parolin – the deal’s architect – said that the Holy See’s objective was to create the conditions for “greater freedom, autonomy and organisation” for the Church. The deal then is tentative and tactical, and falls short of establishing full diplomatic relations.
It is nevertheless legitimate to be concerned. Some Vatican officials have shown a breathtaking naïvety about China. In February, for example, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo said that “those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese”. He and others in Rome seem too easily dazzled by China’s propaganda machine and insufficiently curious about its human rights record.
But while we fear the worst, we do not have enough information to make a definitive judgment. Rome has taken a historic gamble, but the roulette wheel hasn’t stopped turning yet.
Faith and reasons
“The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are 10,000 reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” GK Chesterton’s words are often quoted because they resonate with every Catholic – even if we might not quite get to 10,000. But for a Church in crisis, like the American Church at the moment, it is worth remembering some of the reasons.
That’s what a new project, hosted catholicextension.org, is doing with its call for stories. Under the hashtag #WhyImCatholic, the website is collecting testimonies from believers. Some have told tales of coming to the Faith. “Through reading the early Church Fathers,” a convert writes, “I came to understand that what the Church teaches today (and always has) is what Jesus taught them.” Not all journeys to the Church are so intellectual; but many are equally profound, equally simple.
Others simply list: “The Eucharist. Confession. All the sacraments. Plus Apostolic succession. And the saints. 2,000 years of Church history and unchanging truths of the Faith.” And others are simpler yet: “Because to be anything else would be a lie.” “Because outside the Church there is no salvation.” One priest says he never gets tired of absolving penitents.
Those who have submitted longer stories sometimes allude to the recent scandals in the US Church. One remembers her sense of confusion at the crisis. “I had just received the Eucharist and suddenly there was an overwhelming presence of love and peace around me. I knew things weren’t going to be suddenly easy, but I knew that Christ was there with me, and I found immense comfort in that.”
It’s worth reading these stories, and perhaps submitting your own. They demonstrate the many ways of God’s providence in bringing people into the Church – even if, in the end, it all amounts to one reason.