Investigating a way of out of the China-Vatican impasse
March 23, 2015
Shadow boxing is a refined art form in Indonesia. But the Indonesians don't
have that game all to themselves.
In recent months, posturing and gestures on both sides make it very clear
that something is afoot between the People’s Republic of China and the
Vatican. But just what is happening needs careful and patient attention.
Reading the play is made more complicated because neither side has a unified
approach. On the Chinese side, several government departments have a
significant say in how China shapes its policy and approach to the Catholic
Church locally and with the Vatican. Primary among them are the Foreign
Ministry and the Religious Affairs Bureau, a division of the Communist
Party's United Front that controls the Chinese population in its cultural
and religious diversity.
At the local level, government officials can adopt widely differing
approaches to Catholics and other minority groups and the approaches may be
at variance with national policies — more relaxed or more stringent.
As for the Church, there are two main divisions: those who want to keep the
conversation alive with the government and arrive at an outcome that
satisfies both the Church and Chinese officials; and those Catholics who
believe that the Communists are so treacherous and untrustworthy that no
satisfactory outcome is possible.
And the latter group have a point. The current purges in China and the
selective ideological crackdown initiated by President Xi Jinping is a
familiar occurrence for Christians throughout Chinese history and not just
since 1949 when Mao Zedong led the winning side to power in the civil war.
The lightning rod for this relentless hostility to the Communists is
Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong. The problem that he and his supporters
have to face with this approach is that it proposes only martyrdom as the
way forward. Understandably, this approach finds little support among
Catholics in China.
Even Vatican approved-underground bishops in China have told visitors to
their dioceses in very straightforward terms that Cardinal Zen is not
helping their cause by his often-explosive outbursts.
Cooler heads in China and at the Vatican prefer a more measured approach and
twice over the last year — in Beijing and Rome — representatives of the
Chinese government and the Vatican have met. To date there has been little
progress on the central question: who appoints the leaders of the Church in
This was not always the case. During the 1990s and until 2008, the two
parties had a method for joint agreement on candidates. But with the
periodic tightening of government controls that occurs in China, that method
was unilaterally abrogated by the Chinese when a number of bishops were
ordained without Vatican involvement in the selection and approval process.
That is the impasse that applies currently.
As recently as two weeks ago, the Vatican's official spokesman, Fr. Federico
Lombardi SJ, floated the idea in public that China should follow the lead of
Vietnam in the agreement it has come to with the Vatican — three
government-approved candidates are proposed to the Vatican for it to choose
one among the three.
But this was a kite destined to crash. First, it was a suggestion that had
already been rejected by the Chinese. Second, the idea that the Chinese
would follow the lead of Vietnam, the at times hostile and always seen by
the Chinese to be inferior neighbor, shows a lack of understanding of Asian
Why did the Vatican float the idea when its destiny to be rejected was
already known? It cannot be because the Vatican wants a failure as the
outcome of these discussions. It only can be because it wants to put a line
in the sand beyond which it will not move.
What is that line? The non-negotiable point can only be the refusal to allow
the Catholic Church in China to become a department and tool of the state.
Allowing the independent appointment of bishops in China, selected and
installed at state direction would be a bridge too far.
That concession in the governance of the Church is something the Vatican has
worked to stop for the last 200 years. For much of the millennium before the
19th century, the pope had very little to do with selecting and directly
appointing bishops. In Europe, cathedral clerics and the princes and kings
in their jurisdictions handled that through elections.
The price paid for this way of selecting Church leaders was at times the
compromising of a universal Church that became allied to the interests of
local power figures — the kings and princes. From early in the 19th century,
the Vatican began a campaign to reverse the situation where today almost all
bishops across the world are selected and appointed from Rome.
However, while an independent Catholic Church in China is a contradiction in
terms, there is room to negotiate. There is extensive precedent in current
practice and Church history beyond its European confines for ways of
appointing bishops who are fully Catholic but leaders of autonomous
Churches. The many Eastern Rites in communion with Rome are obvious
As well, a brief inspection of the history of arrangements between the
Vatican and European States will supply instances of the variety of
arrangements that have applied and respect both universality and respect for
Autonomy doesn't mean independence. It is the investigation of that
distinction that needs investigation now if the present impasse is to be
overcome. And that this issue is being explored may explain the current
* Fr. Michael Kelly SJ is the publisher of Global Pulse