The Vatican in China: old dog, old tricks

The Vatican in China: old dog, old tricks

Olivia Ward-Jackson examines power relations between the Vatican and China, highlighting the strategies of the Church to retain power in secular states throughout history.

Relations between China and the Vatican look set to improve in light of a landmark deal this September, which sought to address the highly contentious issue of choosing Catholic bishops in China.

The relationship between China and the Vatican has been strained since 1951, when Mao broke off diplomatic ties between China and the Holy Pontiff. Catholicism was banned in China during the Cultural Revolution, but since the death of Mao it has made a gradual return. Currently, the Vatican remains the only European country to recognise Taiwan, which China claims as a breakaway province. It is possible that the recent deal will offer some sort of reconciliation between the two powers.

Throughout history, the implementation of bishops has been the cause of countless disputes between the Vatican and state governments, often resulting in a delicate balancing act between secular interests of a state and the religious interests of the Vatican. Today, as the familiar issue surfaces again, we can see the Vatican offering concessions to China, in a time-old tradition of papal capitulation to secular power: this September, the Pope agreed to recognise seven excommunicated Chinese bishops who had been appointed by the Chinese government without the permission of the Vatican.

In offering papal legitimacy to the state-supervised church – the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) – the Pope is undermining a network of underground Catholic churches loyal to the Vatican and prompting them to conform with the state regime. The unification of China’s ten-million Catholics under the CPA will help the Chinese Government in its wider battle against dissidents. In return, the Pope has been granted a say in the naming of Chinese bishops, as well as being given the power to veto candidates. This guarantees the Pope greater influence over the official Catholic church in China.

The influential Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong led a protest against the recent deal, claiming that the Vatican was betraying the Catholic Church in China – ‘they’re [sending] the flock into the mouths of the wolves’. However, if the Vatican have indeed sent their flock to the secular wolves, this is certainly not the first time they have done so. We must examine the history of papal relations with secular rulers, and see how such power play has affected the selection of bishops in the past.

Over the twentieth century, many secular states relinquished their powers over the religious sphere and, in a wave of concordats, conceded to the Holy Pontiff the exclusive right to manage Church affairs – and thus to choose bishops. Of course, China was an exception during this period in its decision to suppress, rather than liberate, the Catholic Church.

However, up until the twentieth century the Church had not exercised such freedom and autonomy from secular powers since the first centuries of Christianity, when bishops were chosen by the clergy and the people. This brief era of self-government in the infant years of Christianity was soon eclipsed by the medieval period, which saw constant skirmishes between secular and religious powers over the control of the Church and its bishops.

However, the pinnacle of secular authority over religion can be found later; in sixteenth century France. At this time the Gallican church was independent from Rome in all but name, having obtained extensive freedoms from the Vatican. Indeed, the 1516 Concordat of Bologna gave King Francis I the power to directly nominate bishops, which at the time was a staggering capitulation of papal rights to the French monarchy – and is comparable to the Vatican’s recent deal with China.

Later, Napoleon revived the concept of a state-controlled Catholic church in France through his 1801 Concordat with Pope Pius VII. The Concordat guaranteed Napoleon the right to choose French bishops. It also accepted that the Catholic religion in France would conform to civil regulations implemented by Napoleon to ensure public tranquillity – or in other words, to deter political agitation.

In this way, Napoleon’s church bears resemblance to the Catholic Patriotic Association in modern-day China, which ensures that Catholic worshippers comply with the government’s religious guidelines. These guidelines prohibit any religious teaching that could be interpreted as anti-communist. In China, loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party must always come before devotion to God.

General Franco also struck a notable deal with the Vatican in his 1953 Concordat. In this agreement, the Spanish head of state was permitted to choose bishops on the condition that he first consulted the Pope, who retained the power to veto nominees. In return, Franco restored Catholicism as the official religion of Spain and endowed it with exclusive privileges such as the right to own church property and to distribute religious publications.

The deal between the Vatican and Franco bears a resemblance to the Vatican’s deal with China last month. Naturally, there are many differences – the most obvious one being that Catholics make up 75% of the Spanish population but less than 1% of the Chinese population. Nevertheless, they both are cases of state governments monopolising Catholicism within their country, but with the consent and legitimation of the papacy. In both instances, the papacy is granted greater influence over state-run Catholicism that they would have received if they refused to cooperate.

What can we learn from this apparent déjà vu in papal policy? It appears that throughout history the papacy has adapted in order to survive – regularly altering its stance towards powerful secular rulers even at the expense of its own religious principles. We should look out for this age-old pattern of papal diplomacy in the months to come, both in China and more generally in Asia, as Pope Francis looks east to strengthen Catholic ties – referring to Asia as “one of the great frontiers of the Church of our time”.

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