Saturday, September 22, 2018

A Deal with China: Did the Vatican Lose Its Soul?

In September, 2018, the Vatican and the Chinese government reached “a provisional deal” that would end “a decades-old power struggle over the right to appoint bishops in China.”[1] In regard to the power struggle itself, the deal “would mark a major victory for China.”[2] In regard to spreading Catholicism globally, the Vatican stood to gain both in terms of souls and money. Protestantism had been spreading fast in China, whereas the number of Catholics at the time was 10 to 12 million.[3] The question is therefore whether the Vatican ceded too much for the promise of access to the world’s most populous nation.
In the New Testament, Jesus advises to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Does this mean that a secular government should have the final say over who is to be a bishop in the Catholic Church? Jesus himself is portrayed in the New Testament as a religious figure who is by no means sanctioned by the Roman government. Ultimately, he is put to death for claiming to be a king, which the Roman government cannot abide. Similarly, the Chinese government could not abide bishops not approved by the government—and least of all, bishops said to be future kings. Yet a Roman Catholic bishop must be approved by the Vatican—the Pope himself—to be a Roman Catholic bishop. For a government to do so is presumptuous, even impious. It would seem, therefore, that bishops following Jesus would continue to risk arrest and persecution by worshipping in the underground churches, rather than in the “parallel structure: a state-sanctioned, state-controlled Catholic Church.”[4] Again, as Jesus says, those who try to save their lives will lose them, and those who are willing to lose their lives will save them, and thus themselves. Therefore, Pope Francis would have gone too far had he agreed to bishops being appointed above his objections. To be sure, bishops could get the nod from both parties.
In the provisional deal, “Pope Francis recognized the legitimacy of seven bishops appointed by the Chinese government. Because they had not been selected by the Vatican, they had previously been excommunicated.”[5]  This recognition solves that problem, but what about the appointment of future bishops? Which side would have the final say? Would either have a veto? The provisional deal is not clear on this point. “Neither side provided a clear answer.”[6]
At the time of the agreement, Archbishop Claudio Celli, a lead negotiator for the Vatican, said the deal provides for “the intervention of the Holy Father for sure” in the selection of bishops. The negotiator would not say, however, that the intervention could be a veto; he said only that “the Holy Father gets to say something about the appointment of bishops.”[7] Only having a say, such as in raising objections, is not sufficient, I submit, for a Roman Catholic official must pass muster with that Church in order to be Roman Catholic.
That the Vatican would have to sever relations with Taiwan raises the question of how bishops there would be selected. Moreover, in ceding this point, the pope risked being perceived as throwing out a very small country for one with a lot of potential Catholics. Was this even to save more souls or to catch up on Protestant denominations in China? Did the Vatican stand to pull in a lot of money from the expected increase in numbers in China? Even in raising these questions, I see a lot of distance from the negotiations and the relationship between Jesus preaching and the Roman government, as well as the preachments themselves—especially in regard to treasure not being of the earthly sort and to being willing to bear one’s cross rather than travel on the road of convenience; for in gaining the whole world to save itself, a religion may lose its very soul.[8]

1. Jason Horowitz and Ian Johnson, “China and Vatican Reach Deal on Appointment of Bishops,” The New York Times, September 22, 2018.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. On Christian thought on greed in relation to wealth, see Skip Worden, God’s Gold,available at Amazon.