Elephants in the Room

Will Pope Francis Surrender to China?

In capitulating on the issue of bishop appointments, the Vatican would lose a 1,000-year struggle.

Henry IV, king of the Germans, surrenders his crown to Pope Gregory VII, who sits enthroned. (Woodcut by John Foxe/Rare Books and Manuscripts Library/Ohio State University Libraries/Wikimedia Commons)
Henry IV, king of the Germans, surrenders his crown to Pope Gregory VII, who sits enthroned. (Woodcut by John Foxe/Rare Books and Manuscripts Library/Ohio State University Libraries/Wikimedia Commons)

While the Winter Olympics in South Korea are dominating the headlines from Asia this week, surreptitious negotiations now taking place in Beijing may prove more consequential for the eventual course of the 21st century. According to news reports, the Vatican might be nearing an agreement with the Chinese government that would lead to mutual diplomatic recognition between Beijing and Rome. However, the reported agreement would be almost entirely on Beijing’s terms, with the Holy See ceding authority to the Chinese Communist Party for the appointment of bishops and granting the party effective control of the Catholic Church in China. If true, that would amount to a stunning unilateral concession by Pope Francis rather than a negotiated compromise.

The geopolitical stakes are enormous, embroiling the world’s largest nation of 1.4 billion and the world’s largest religious group of 1.2 billion. The population overlap between the two is small — there are only 10 million or so Catholics in China, split between the underground church and the one church controlled by Beijing — numbers that pale in comparison to the estimated 70 million or more (perhaps many more) Chinese Protestants. Yet the resolution of this dispute will do much to shape whether China continues to be ruled by an officially atheistic and increasingly aggressive government, or begins to evolve in a more pacific and liberal direction.

For readers unfamiliar with Catholic theology and church governance, this is not a mere administrative trifle but an issue central to Catholicism’s beliefs, identity, and history going back millennia. One of medieval Europe’s most cataclysmic events came with the investiture controversy of the 11th century over whether emperors or popes had the authority to appoint bishops and priests. The dispute climaxed in 1076 and 1077, when Emperor Henry IV, the German monarch, failed in his challenge to Pope Gregory VII, and the humiliated emperor found himself instead a supplicant standing in the snow outside the pope’s palace at Canossa, groveling for forgiveness and conceding the church’s authority over religious offices.

The issue lies at the core distinctions between church and state. Churches and other religious organizations have the authority to choose their own clergy, determine their theology, and govern themselves in spiritual matters, while respecting and deferring to the authority of the state in political matters. In the case of bishops and priests, Catholic teaching holds them to be Christ’s representatives here on earth, the successors of the original Apostles, whose highest loyalties are to the Pope and ultimately to Christ in heaven.

As a Protestant in the reformed tradition who holds to the priesthood of all believers, I myself do not have any ecclesial stake in the current negotiations between Beijing and the Vatican. But as an American who believes in religious liberty, human rights, and not capitulating to the pretensions of an aggressive atheistic government that seeks to squelch any independent civil society, I find the Vatican’s reported concessions of serious concern.

So do many Catholics. The estimable George Weigel, a leading Catholic intellectual and a biographer of Pope John Paul II, wrote in a piece for Foreign Policy:

John Paul and his successor, Benedict XVI, could have had the deal now being proposed by Beijing, or something very similar to it. Both declined, because they knew it was not a step toward greater freedom for the Catholic Church in China but a step toward greater Catholic subservience to the Chinese Communist regime, a betrayal of persecuted Catholics throughout the People’s Republic of China, and an impediment to future evangelism in China. Both may also have weighed the fact that any formal Vatican diplomatic exchange with Beijing would necessitate ending diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the first Chinese democracy in history — and that would be a bad signal to the rest of the world about the Vatican’s commitment to Catholicism’s own social doctrine.

Weigel’s points highlight the especially sensitive issue of the seven Chinese bishops who had previously been appointed by the government over the fierce objections of previous popes who actually excommunicated at least some of those faux-bishops. The provisional agreement between the Holy See and Beijing would reverse those excommunications and affirm those bishops as legitimate appointments. This is why so many Catholics who have stayed faithful to the Vatican through supporting China’s persecuted underground Catholic Church are remonstrating against the proposed deal. Witness this open letter to Francis, for example.

One of those faithful Chinese Catholics who has maintained his loyalty to Rome and been a courageous voice for democracy and human rights is Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong. Based on decades of firsthand experience trying to shepherd his flock and protect it from Beijing’s encroachments, the wily cardinal has spoken out against the Vatican’s concessions, and even reportedly traveled to Rome the other week to appeal to Francis.

I was privileged to meet Zen in 2007 when as a National Security Council staff member I helped set up a visit between him and President George W. Bush in the White House residence. Their meeting sparked the ire of Beijing, which then as now regarded the cardinal as an irksome troublemaker, but it also helped demonstrate to China that the United States stood with those around the world advocating for democracy and human rights in their own countries.

Previous American presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush enjoyed close relations with their papal counterparts, especially when John Paul occupied the papacy. Unfortunately Francis does not seem to have inherited his predecessor’s steadfast opposition to tyranny, nor has President Donald Trump yet taken up the mantle of America’s historic support for freedom abroad. The distaste the two hold for each other also limits the White House’s ability to quietly sway Rome away from its embrace of Beijing. The newly confirmed ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, is a devout Catholic with strong Vatican ties, so hopefully he is already engaging in some vigorous quiet diplomacy with the Holy See to forestall this looming capitulation to China. Meanwhile, perhaps Trump could also invite Zen back for a return visit to the White House.

Otherwise Francis might be gratuitously giving away to Beijing the hard-won gains of Gregory VII at Canossa almost 1,000 years ago.


Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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