The Pope has cut a deal with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that gives the Vatican a say in the selection of Bishops for the state-sanctioned Catholic Church. The deal is supposed to give the Vatican the ability to approve episcopal appointments made by the Chinese government.
To Joseph Cardinal Zen, Retired Bishop of Hong Kong, the Pope would be making a choice for the government-controlled church over the faithful underground church. His opposition is impassioned, calling it a “surrender”, and a betrayal of Christ. The underground Catholic Church is substantially larger and carefully guards its independence from the government and maintains loyalty to the Holy See, but at the price of persecution.
Neither the state Church or the underground Church have a direct connection to Rome; this is obviously what the Pope wants to fix by the compromise. But first he might want to consider a number of historical precedents that suggest such accords don’t end well and consider a more conservative path:
- In the Middle Ages, temporal authorities (kings, princes, etc.) appointed bishops without the consent of Rome. This opened the door to simony (the purchasing of divine offices), clerical marriage, and a Church with an increasing number of priests without apostolic authority to administer the sacraments. Through their perseverance (and power of anathema) the popes of the Gregorian Reform movement eventually brought the kings to their knees.
- During the French Revolution priests were required to sign an oath of allegiance to the revolutionary authorities over that of Rome. Laws were then passed making the clergy government employees. Those that refused, a majority, were forced underground and were persecuted to the point of execution, either by the government or angry mobs. In any case, Catholicism was eventually banned in favor of the “Cult of Reason”.
- Like the PRC, which recently tore down 1200 publically displayed crosses, the Nazis removed crosses from public places and demanded that the Catholic bishops make an oath of loyalty to the state (Article 16 of the Reichskonkordat). Like the French revolutionaries, the eventual goal of the Nazi state was to eradicate Christianity, of which Hitler said, “I shall never come to terms with the Christian lie, …our epoch will certainly see the end of the disease of Christianity.”
- Polish authorities during the Soviet era knew Karol Józef Wojtyła, and feared him. If they had allowed entry in the country for Pope John Paul II, he could inspire rebellion. If they refused him entry, the resentment at their weakness and fear could also inspire rebellion. They decided it was best to politely invite him for what they called a religious pilgrimage, betting that he would be grateful enough to withhold open criticism of the communist regime. They were wrong. They expected around 200,000 at his masses, but millions came to hear him, repeatedly shouting “we want God”. This is typical of what he told them:
“You must be strong with love, which is stronger than death. . . . When we are strong with the Spirit of God, we are also strong with the faith of man. . . . There is therefore no need to fear. . . . So . . . I beg you: Never lose your trust, do not be defeated, do not be discouraged. . . . Always seek spiritual power from Him from whom countless generations of our fathers and mothers have found it. Never detach yourselves from Him. Never lose your spiritual freedom.”
Peggy Noonan sums up the result of this momentous trip in a poignant article :
“Whatever legitimacy the government could pretend to, it began to lose. One by one the people of Poland said to themselves, or for themselves within themselves: It is over. And when 10 million Poles said that to themselves, it was over in Poland. And when it was over in Poland, it was over in Eastern Europe. And when it was over in Eastern Europe, it was over in the Soviet Union. And when it was over in the Soviet Union, well, it was over.”
Pope Francis should do whatever possible to support the Catholics of China, but history shows that papal accords that offer a measure of legitimization to tyrannical anti-Christian regimes is counter productive. It won’t be long before the PRC is itself history.