Hear about last weekend’s provisional agreement between the Vatican and Beijing to end their decades-long dispute over the appointment of Catholic bishops in China?
China is, of course, arguably one of the world’s worst offenders when it comes to suppressing religious freedom — including for persecution of its estimated six-million strong, underground Catholic church.
You're excused if you haven’t seen coverage of this story, since the American media can barely keep up with the ongoing political explosions emanating from Washington these days. That means a great many international stories, while covered, often receive less overall attention than their long-term importance warrants.
This Vatican-Beijing development — ostensibly designed to unite the much persecuted, Vatican-loyal, underground Chinese Catholic church with the government recognized, and controlled, official Chinese Catholic church — falls into this category.
Given China’s current redoubling of its efforts to allow few, if any, ideologically rivals, religious or otherwise, it seems like an odd time to enter into any such agreement with Beijing.
Which to my mind means this agreement is, for the Vatican, pretty tenuous — as is every agreement held hostage to Beijing’s generally oppressive political power plays.
How will this agreement survive should Vatican officials decide to criticize one or another Chinese human rights violation? Or does China believe that by agreeing to the deal its gained a measure of Roman Catholic Church silence on such matters -- meaning this agreement is just another Chinese attempt to control religious expression?
Today it's China’s Uighur Muslims. It’s not so far fetched to image Beijing lowering the boom on its Catholic population tomorrow should the Roman hierarchy offend China’s politically paranoid sensibilities.
News of the deal broke online on Saturday. The Vatican defended its decision by noting that the provisional deal would lead to all Chinese Catholics being brought into full communion with Rome — meaning that the Chinese church’s bishops (and the priests they ordain) would be canonically linked in accord with the Vatican's traditional view that it alone possesses an unbroken link to Jesus's original apostles.
Make no mistake. This is a very big deal to Rome, which maintains that only a pope may appoint Catholic bishops. That's why the Vatican is also saying that its agreement is not political but solely pastoral in nature --though many observers say restoring full diplomatic ties between the two may be next on the agenda. Note: That would involve Rome abandoning Taiwan, which it currently recognizes as an independent nation, but which China regards as a breakaway part of its sovereign territory.
This piece from the National Catholic Reporter explains the Vatican’s reasoning in greater detail.
Much of the first-round coverage highlighted the strong reservations voiced by critics of the deal. This New York Times initial story and this piece from The Guardian reflect this approach. For me, reading between the lines, this says that Western journalists, by and large, are highly skeptical of the provisional accord, under which the pope would make final selections from a list of bishop candidates put together by Beijing.
Journalists, even those writing ostensibly “objective” news stories, are not above signaling where they stand through their selective inclusion of critical ideas and sources. I know I’ve been guilty of this trick of the trade during my more than half-century career. Sorry.
Some critics, particularly from the conservative side, had some pretty strong words for the Vatican.
George Weigel, the noted Catholic writer and Vatican watcher, went as far as to compare the Vatican’s action to its failed decision to enter into an agreement, also made out institutional and pastoral concerns, with the German Nazi regime.
Posting on National Review’s online site, he said (warning: longish but key excerpt coming):
Eighty-five years ago, on July 20, 1933, a concordat defining the legal position of the Catholic Church in the Third Reich was signed by Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII) and German vice chancellor Franz von Papen. The Reischskonkordat was then ratified by the Nazi-dominated German parliament some six weeks later, on September 10. Pope Pius XI, under whose authority Cardinal Pacelli had negotiated this treaty, was under no illusions about German National Socialism; he detested its racial ideology. And unlike some Vatican diplomats who seem to have imagined that the Third Reich would be a short-run thing, the pope likely thought that Hitler and his gangsters would be in power for some time. So he wanted to negotiate legal protections for the Church so that it could operate pastorally under a totalitarian regime that, with the passage of the notorious “Enabling Act” of March 23, had assumed virtually dictatorial powers. That one condition for the Reichskonkordat was the de facto destruction of the Catholic-based Center Party was evidently a price Pius XI thought worth paying if the result were the protection of Catholic institutions and pastoral life.
This legal-diplomatic strategy — which seems to have been based on the belief that even a totalitarian regime would honor a treaty commitment — didn’t work. The Third Reich began violating the Reichskonkordat shortly after the ink dried on the treaty. Then after some two dozen stiff diplomatic notes to Berlin (drafted by Pacelli) had not produced results, an irate Pius XI issued the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge [With Burning Concern] in 1937, had it clandestinely printed in Germany, and ordered that it be read from all German pulpits. In the encyclical, Pius denounced an “idolatrous cult” that replaced belief in God with a “national religion” and a “myth of race and blood,” and his stress on the perennial value of the Old Testament made it quite clear what he thought of the Nazi swastika and what it represented.
It is beyond ironic, and it borders on the scandalous, that the lesson of this debacle — paper promises mean nothing to totalitarians — has not been learned in the Vatican, which now appears to be on the verge of repeating its mistake by completing a deal with the government of the People’s Republic of China, on the 85th anniversary of the Reichskonkordat.
Meanwhile, over at the The American Conservative, writer Rod Dreher, after calling the agreement “morally wrong,” said this:
How can it be anything other than a betrayal of the underground Church? Last summer, while traveling I met a Chinese Protestant who told me in conversation that he was thinking of converting to Catholicism. I asked him how a Rome agreement with Beijing that gives the communists greater control over the Church would affect his decision. His face grew severe, and he said under no circumstances would he have anything to do with a collaborationist Catholic Church.
Anecdotes are not data, but I just want to share that. I can’t imagine how the men and women of the underground Catholic Church in China must feel this morning. What if they resist? Well, on what basis would they resist? To this point, the focus of their resistance has been loyalty to the Holy See. As of today, loyalty to the Holy See means submission to Beijing.
This storyline is by no means played out. Between now and its being finalized, all manner of new questions -- read, "glitches" -- are likely to arise between Rome and Beijing. And let’s not forget the church’s ongoing clergy sex abuse crisis, of which there is also much more to come, and for which Pope Francis is taking much heat for his, shall we say, less than aggressive handling of the scandal.
Might clerical sex indiscretions get in the way of finalizing the China deal?
(Over the weekend, the German-language, liberal-leaning news magazine Der Spiegel published a long report, apparently written prior to news of the China deal surfaced, blasting Francis over the sex issue. Read German, trust an online translation service, undaunted by pay walls? Then click here for a link to the original piece).
The clergy sex crisis surely has outraged many Catholics, liberal and conservative, and will undoubtedly continue to attract far greater media coverage than this China deal. But don’t sell the latter short. As time goes by, it could loom ever larger as the church’s inner-workings, particularly under Francis, are continually picked over by commentators and the media for the foreseeable future.
Bottom line: The rapidly declining reputation of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy -- and the far-reaching changes this may spark within the church -- is by far the biggest and potentially most consequential religion story around. Pay close attention.
FIRST IMAGE: Stained glass at the Chinese Martyrs Catholic Parish in Toronto.