At stake in the current negotiations between China and the Holy See is the question of control over the local Church, which essentially boils down to the question of who gets to appoint bishops in China: Rome or the Chinese government?
This question has a long history as far as the Church is concerned. If we take our own country, before the Reformation all the bishops were effectively state appointees, though being in communion with the Pope, they were also approved by Rome. What this meant in practice was that men like Cardinal Wolsey worked their way up through the Church not by serving the Church but by being useful to the King. Because Wolsey was such an outstanding royal servant, he was rewarded with benefices, the greatest of which was the archbishopric of York, and he even owed his cardinal’s hat to the King’s favour.
This, of course, did huge damage to the Church, as Wolsey, by his own admission, spent his life serving Henry VIII rather than the people of God. It is true that there were outstanding bishops in Tudor England such as St John Fisher, who owed his appointment to the see of Rochester to the favour of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, but he was the exception to the rule. Most were placemen who served King first and God second. An authoritarian government like that of the Tudors valued men who did not cause trouble.
In Catholic Europe after the Reformation, the Church continued to be the handmaid of the state, and kings continued to appoint bishops, many of whom were simply politicians in clerical dress. The most notorious of these was the former Bishop of Autun in France, the extremely able Talleyrand (1754-1838), a man who threw off his cassock at the first opportune moment, revealing himself to be an agnostic pragmatist. The French Revolution proved to be a disaster for the Church, closely identified as it had become to the Ancien Régime. While some bishops like Talleyrand embraced the Revolution and deserted the Church, others, more faithful, found themselves exposed to the fury of the new order.
The prize that the Church is seeking in its negotiations with China today are, first of all, an end to the harassment and persecution of faithful Chinese Catholics; and, secondly, the reintegration into the Church of the schismatic pseudo-church of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which has several illegally but validly ordained bishops. Thirdly, the Church wants to see the appointment of bishops to various dioceses that have been left without one for a long time.
All these aims are worthy ones, but what price will the Church have to pay? Will it mean that all Catholic bishops in China will from now on be appointed by Beijing, or at least acceptable to Beijing? What sort of bishops would the Chinese government appoint? Would the faithful accept them?
Can Beijing be trusted to keep any agreement it reaches? And would any agreement effectively mean handing over the faithful Catholics of China, who have resisted joining the state-sponsored pseudo-church, to the tender mercies of their atheistic government?
Two further points need to be remembered. The current Chinese government will not be in power forever. It would be a pity for the Church, which has resisted the communists so long and so bravely, if it should crumble just before dawn breaks. And then there is the question of credibility. How will the Church look, if, having won freedom from state interference in Europe after many centuries, it were to concede the very same hard-won point in China?
This article first appeared in the December 9 2016 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here