China, Bishops, and Concordats

So I'm going to go out on a limb and claim that you'll read it here first: I'd put money down that within the next 10-20 years, China and the Vatican will have ended their current political jostling ("le Ping-Pong", as Henri Tincq of Le Monde put it) in a quite remarkable way: some sort of formal concordat giving Catholicism an official, if not the only official, status in China.

The Vatican has been all about China lately: the controversial elevation to the purple of Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong, continuing difficulties about the appointment of bishops, a secret Vatican delegation that was in town last week, having undisclosed conversations with undisclosed participants. So, with not other qualifications than knowledge of the same history Ratzinger knows, what are they talking about?

I'd bet that Vatican officials are giving Chinese officials a quick seminar on 11th- and 12th-century European history. Remember vaguely something about an investiture controversy from your medieval history courses? (Assuming you went to a civilized place which offered such things...) The conflict between the German emperors and the pope as to who got to name bishops and "invest" them with their secular and ecclesiastical authority has numerous parallels with today's China situation. The issues raised continued to be a source of tension through the rise of modern nation-states, who often negotiated "concordats", formal agreements, with the pope regarding such fun issues as who got to name bishops, who got to approve bishops, who did what during their ordination ceremonies, etc. It would make much sense for China and the Vatican to normalize the situation of Chinese Catholics by producing a concordat in which both parties can save face and maintain some sense of control over the Catholic Church in China. Ratzinger knows his medieval history pretty darn well.

What advantage would this have for China? Why bother, when the Patriotic Association and other Chinese Christian organizations seem to be going along quite well, thank you? The major impetus might be that the window for China's having a single Christian negotiation partner is closing rather quickly. The massive proliferation of Christian groups throughout China, from official-ish mainline denominations to storefront prosperity-Gospel churches, and everything in between, is a centralized bureaucrat's worst nightmare. The Vatican and China are uniquely poised to understand each other: watching these two very old bureaucracies dance is like standing on the sidelines during a Japanese monster film. Hence the small flare-ups, the ping-pong back and forth -- and, IMO, the inevitable regularization of relations. A Chinese Constantinian arrangement, in which anyone in China can be Christian -- as long as you're Catholic -- seems the easiest way for China to begin regulating its growing Christian population without having to spend lots of its own energy in creating a national church from scratch. With other Christian churches, you have a cacophony of voices and authorities with which you would need to dialogue; the prospect of having a single nuncio on the end of the phone must be very attractive.

This raises, of course, some important ethical issues: Will the Vatican think that abandoning the Catholics of Taiwan is worth the chance of massive evangelization in mainland China? Is the very idea of the Vatican linking itself with an oppressive regime worth the moral cost? Would it be a repeat of the Vatican's concordat with Hitler in 1933?

This is where I have real questions, of ethics and of facts. My biggest caveat with this speculation is that I'm coming into this knowing a bit about medieval church-state interactions, but very, very little about contemporary China and the church there. So those of you who know more, is this scenario plausible? Why or why not? What other possibilities that I haven't thought of might be out there?

1 comment:

Ivory said...

My guess would be not - China is an oppressive regime and in my own overly positive and optimistic view of the church is that they would resist overtly supporting such a government. It would cause too many problems. Also, it would make the church stronger in China - something the chinese government would want to avoid as much as possible.