China has been a puzzle and a challenge to the Catholic Church since the first Jesuit missionaries arrived on its shores in the sixteenth century. If the Gospel could take root there, in soil so different from Europe’s, then surely it could take root anywhere on earth, as Christians had always believed. But could it really take root there, or did the vast cultural differences make Western theology, if not the Gospel itself, unintelligible in the Middle Kingdom? Which Chinese words, if any, adequately expressed what Christians meant by “God”? Debates about the necessity and risks of what the church would later call “inculturation” grew out of such questions, as missionaries experimented with new methods of evangelization that would make the faith comprehensible to China’s people and tolerable to its rulers. Back in Rome, some worried that missionaries were making too many exceptions to the rules; the Dominicans feared that Jesuit improvisations would disrupt the pure harmony of Mother Church.
Today, many Catholics are understandably worried that the first Jesuit pope is about to make another dangerous exception by giving China’s Communist government some say over the appointment of Catholic bishops. This would be a clear departure from current canon law and Vatican II’s decree Christus dominus, which insisted that, “in order to safeguard the liberty of the Church…no rights or privileges be conceded to the civil authorities in regard to the election, nomination, or presentation to bishoprics.” A pope can override canon law, but in light of all the harm civil authorities have done when they meddled with apostolic succession—from the eleventh-century Investiture Controversy to the shameful treatment of Archbishop József Mindszenty in Soviet-controlled Hungary—why would Francis do this?
It is no secret that the Vatican has long been eager to restore diplomatic ties with Beijing, which were severed in 1951, two years after the Communists took power. For six decades, China’s Catholics have been divided between an underground church loyal to Rome and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which answers to the Chinese Communist Party. The Patriotic Association’s seven government-appointed bishops are considered illegitimate by Rome, though their ordinations are valid. For this reason, Pope Benedict advised the Chinese faithful to seek bishops and priests who were in communion with Rome—but he also allowed that, where this posed a “grave inconvenience,” Catholics could receive the sacraments from illegitimate bishops and priests. Such magnanimity has not been reciprocated by the Chinese government, which has continued to persecute the underground church with fines, harassment, and even imprisonment. Praising the courage and fidelity of China’s martyrs, Benedict insisted that “the clandestine condition [of China’s underground Catholics] is not a normal feature of the Church’s life,” and promised Rome would do whatever it could to help lift this burden.