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.
The question now is how far Francis can go in his efforts toward rapprochement with the Chinese government without damaging the church’s credibility or betraying all those who have stood by Rome, often at great personal cost. The Vatican has already asked two of the underground church’s forty bishops to step aside in favor of bishops appointed by Beijing, a move that has provoked alarm and indignation among both Chinese Catholics and the pope’s critics in the West. It is reported that Vatican negotiators have also offered the Chinese government the privilege of nominating all future bishops, as long as the pope retains the power of veto. This would be a unique arrangement. Whether it would be a prudent one depends on Beijing’s good faith and the pope’s willingness to exercise his veto vigorously.
There are, unfortunately, still plenty of reasons to doubt Beijing’s good faith. Its new Regulations on Religious Affairs, which went into effect on February 1, increase the fines for involvement with an underground church, reassert the official atheism of the Chinese state, and call for the “Sinicization” of Christianity—which, given China’s record of coercion, amounts to inculturation at the point of a gun. Chinese officials continue to tear down churches or have their crosses removed (the better to “Sinicize” them, presumably). In the end, the kind of Christianity-with-Chinese-characteristics Beijing has in mind may have as little to do with real Christianity as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has had to do with socialism.
Still, this does not mean the Vatican should ignore an opportunity to restore unity to China’s divided Catholic Church, even if this may involve some unusual compromises. If the main concern of Chinese officials is to keep up the appearance of independence from foreign influence, Rome may be able to satisfy them while also advancing its own priorities: the integrity of the sacraments and hierarchical communion. Francis, like his predecessor, believes that reconciliation—between members of the underground church and members of the Patriotic Association, if not between the Vatican and Beijing—is critical to the church’s mission in China. The conflict between the two Catholic communities there is an open wound and a scandalous impediment to evangelization. Resolving it will require Rome’s diplomats to be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves—both, not one or the other. It may also require some Jesuit improvisation from the pope himself.