The Vatican-China agreement

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Pope Francis greets Chinese pilgrims. Photo courtesy of Catholicworldnews.com.

On Sept. 22, 2018, a Provisional Agreement was signed in Beijing between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China on the appointment of bishops. Many Catholics have read articles, even by well-known commentators, suggesting that the agreement is a bad deal, or worse, a betrayal of the Church’s interests in China. Since the text of the Provisional Agreement has not been made public, and since American Catholics have a limited knowledge of the situation of the Church in China, it is difficult to evaluate the merits of the argument directly. For a longer discussion of how Catholics should approach thinking about the agreement from a low-information situation, Harvard Constitutional Law professor Adrian Vermeule and I wrote a longer treatment for the Mirror of Justice blog, published just before the agreement was announced.

For Catholics living under liberal regimes, the idea that a notionally “Communist” government, though an inaccurate descriptor, would have any role in the nomination of bishops doubtless seems strange. Let us remember that bishops exercise a power of order and, in dioceses, a power of jurisdiction. According to his “potestas ordinis,” a bishop can validly consecrate another priest as a bishop. Presuming such a consecration is done correctly, it is valid with or without the permission of the Holy See, though only licit with papal consent. A bishop receives the “potestas jurisdictionis” over a diocese from the pope alone, however (see Pius XII, Mystici corporis, sec. 43). This refers to a bishop’s ordinary jurisdiction over his diocese as its spiritual ruler. A bishop’s power is “ordinary” to his office, not a delegation of papal power, but a bishop only assumes charge of his diocese with papal consent.

Here lies the difficulty for Catholics in China. After 1949, China unilaterally severed relationships with the Holy See, which recognized Taiwan as the rightful government of China. The Communist Chinese then established the Chinese Patriotic Association (CPA), and those who remained in communion with Rome went “underground.” The CPA thus continued to consecrate bishops validly, but illegitimately assigned them to dioceses without jurisdiction. “Underground” bishops consecrated their successors, though also not without irregularities – e.g., seeking the Holy See’s approval only retroactively. In the 1980s, however, illicitly consecrated CPA bishops began to seek, and did eventually receive, communion with the Holy See via private letters to the pope. Prior to the Sept. 22 agreement, only seven living CPA-appointed bishops still lacked approval from the Holy See and thus needed the lifting of their excommunications as well as a canonical mission to govern their dioceses lawfully.

The Investiture Crisis which occurred during the early Middle Ages concerned this point of jurisdiction: lay authorities, particularly in Germany, were investing bishops in their offices, that is, presuming to confer episcopal jurisdiction on them. In the resolution of that conflict, and in subsequent centuries, the Church made clear the doctrine, eventually formalized by Pius XII, that bishops receive their jurisdiction from the pope alone. But even in the centuries after the Investiture Crisis, lay authorities often continued to have a say in the nomination of bishops who were subsequently confirmed by the pope as in France after the Concordat of Bologna, 1516. Even today, the president of France nominates episcopal candidates for the Sees of Strasbourg and Metz. Because ecclesiastical power is a “power” like temporal power, each power has historically had a certain interest in how the other is wielded.

This interest remains a feature of liberal regimes, too, though it appears in different ways. In the fledgling United States, Pope Pius VI assumed that the new regime would want to have a say in the establishment of any Catholic hierarchy in the country; George Washington merely declined out of lack of interest. Benjamin Franklin, a Freemason, nominated his friend John Carroll, SJ, who became the first bishop, later archbishop, of Baltimore.

The Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and China reflects this history. A regime such as China’s, best described as a populist authoritarian regime, per Wenfang Tang of the University of Iowa, may be willing to trade away the open communion of Chinese Catholics with Rome for a say in the appointment of bishops, as well as eventual diplomatic recognition. When that time eventually comes, a concordat between the Holy See and China will take its place in a long line of agreements allowing civil authorities, even dangerous ones like Napoléon, some role in the nomination of bishops. Meantime, brushing up on the appropriate ecclesiastical history and canon law would, for interested lay Catholics, be time well spent.

Gladden J. Pappin is an assistant professor in the Politics Department and is the founding deputy editor of American Affairs.

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