A Vatican delegation sent to China between Aug. 28 and Sept. 2, 2022, visited 92-year-old Bishop Melchior Shi Hongzhen, seen here in a photo taken on May 24, 2015. The visit was a strong signal from the Holy See that despite the desire to carry on a dialogue, the situation of Catholics in China has not been forgotten. / GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images
Vatican City, Oct 26, 2022 / 10:00 am (CNA).
The renewal of the agreement between China and the Holy See for the appointment of bishops was expected. Between Aug. 28 and Sept. 2, a Vatican delegation was sent to Xinjiang to carry out talks. The location was symbolic, since it was formally without an official bishop.
The delegation also visited the underground Bishop Melchior Shi Hongzhen, who is 92 years old. The visit was a strong signal from the Holy See that despite the desire to carry on a dialogue, the situation of Catholics in China has not been forgotten.
An announcement released by the Holy See following the visit reads: “The Vatican side intends to continue the respectful and constructive dialogue with the Chinese side, for fruitful implementation of the aforementioned agreement and further development of bilateral relations, to promote the mission of the Catholic Church and the good of the Chinese people.”
Since the agreement was signed, this is a novelty. But it is a novelty well rooted in the Vatican’s diplomatic practice in recent years. Two aspects are key to understanding this approach.
Dialogue and bishops
Pope Francis described the first aspect in the homily of the consistory of Aug. 27. He recalled “the example of Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, rightly famous for his openness to promoting, through farsighted and patient dialogue, the new prospects that opened up in Europe following the Cold War — may God prevent human shortsightedness from closing anew those prospects that he opened!”
The pope explained how Casaroli was known for visiting young inmates and pointing out how the cardinals had to maintain that kind of attitude.
By mentioning Casaroli on the eve of the departure of the Vatican’s mission in China, the pope appeared to signal the approach he favored and expected.
The second aspect was given by the interview with Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, pro-prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization, on the occasion of the announcement of the agreement’s renewal.
Tagle noted that “the intervention of civil authorities in the bishops’ choices has manifested itself several times and in various forms throughout history. Even in the Philippines, my country, the rules of the ‘Patronato Real’ were in force for a long time, with which the organization of the Church was subjected to the Spanish royal power. Even St. Francis Xavier and the Jesuits conducted their mission in India under the patronage of the Portuguese crown.”
The cardinal added that “these are certainly different things and contexts, since each case has its specificity and historical explanation. But in such situations, the important thing is that the procedure used for episcopal appointments guarantees and safeguards what the doctrine and discipline of the Church recognize as essential to living the hierarchical communion between the Successor of Peter and the other bishops, successors of the apostles. And this also happens in the procedures currently used in China.”
How the appointment of bishops works
The words of Tagle referred to what had been a practice in many cases for the Church: that of accepting the influence of governments in appointing bishops, considered a lesser evil to allow the presence of an ecclesiastical hierarchy.
According to canon law, the pope freely appoints bishops. Nevertheless, the participation of the local Church and its members is expected to the extent that the apostolic nuncio inquires about the opinions of others of the secular and religious clergy and the laity. Naturally, the pope is expected to have the final word.
In the case of the Chinese agreement, it is unclear what the pope has granted and how the process is applied in practice. The deal, like the negotiation, has remained secret, and reports have raised significant concerns.
In the recent history of the Church, another agreement was managed in total secrecy, provided for compromises, and — above all — had similar effects. An analysis of that agreement can help to understand the approach of the Holy See today. This precedent is the so-called “simple understanding” between Hungary and the Holy See in 1964.
Negotiations with Hungary in the 1960s
The information on this agreement is laid out in an essay by Professor András Fejérdy titled “The simple understanding of 1964 between the Holy See and Hungary” and published in the “History of the Hungarian Church.”
At the time, the essay explains, Hungary was a country firmly behind the Iron Curtain and under Soviet influence, and Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, was already a refugee in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest after the failed popular insurrection of 1956. During the intervening years, there was very little communication between Rome and the churches beyond Cortina.
To bring about an understanding between Hungary and the Holy See, three meetings were held between Monsignor Casaroli, then undersecretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs (a sort of “deputy foreign minister”), and the Hungarian authorities.
In Casaroli’s diaries, he never expressed confidence at the prospect of a positive result. When referring to the channels of dialogue that he opened with the countries of the Soviet bloc, Casaroli said it was not a question of establishing a modus vivendi (a way of living) but a modus non-moriendi, literally a way of not dying.
The Holy See sought an agreement because, after 1945, the Holy See had considered the simple agreement between the Holy See and Hungary stipulated in 1927 expired. Since the Holy See did not respect the state’s claim to give prior consent, attempts by the Holy See to provide for vacant bishops had failed since the 1950s.
In December 1962, the Holy See sent a verbal note (a diplomatic document) proposing a practical compromise: the intention of appointment would be communicated first to the candidate himself, while the appointment would be made public only after the cardinal had obtained, personally or through the episcopal conference, the state consent.
In Budapest, however, the proposal was not well received. The Hungarian side knew the urgency for the Holy See to ensure the existence of the hierarchy and saw a chance to assert their interests. The Holy See accepted a solution that formally did not conflict with the canonical principle of free appointment by the pope but gave a decisive influence to the regime in choosing candidates.
Another topic on the agenda was the request for an oath that the bishops should have given loyalty to the constitution of the Hungarian People’s Republic. The Holy See finally clarified that the oath of fidelity given by ecclesiastics was to be understood with the clause “sicut decet episcopum, vel sacerdotem” — as befits the bishops or the priest.
The same problem concerns the registration of bishops in the Patriotic Association in China. After the agreement, the bishops are not required to register, as the government would like. There is no obligation.
Fejérdy notes that, in any case, the oath question was secondary for the Holy See, while the appointment of bishops was a priority. The delegation of the Holy See left the discussion on oath open for tactical reasons. Yet these motives weakened, rather than strengthened, its position.
“The minutes of the negotiations,” Fejérdy writes, “testify that the failure of the Vatican’s attempts to obtain information from various sources was primarily due to the secrecy of the talks. In fact, the need to keep the existence and content of the meetings secret in a certain sense became a vicious circle for the Vatican.”
This is because “concerning the communist regimes, the Holy See preferred the instruments of secret diplomacy because from the very beginning it was aware that with the negotiations it would only be able to obtain partial results. It was, therefore, feared that the publicity of the negotiations, and their repercussions in the press, could start a controversy that could threaten the same partial results.”
The secrecy of the talks, however, allowed Hungary to put total control over the Vatican delegation in place. In the China question, the Holy See certainly has more significant experience and information-sharing practices in place.
The simple agreement signed on Sept. 15, 1964, was defined as a gentlemen’s agreement, abandoning the formula of modus vivendi that had instead characterized similar agreements. In this way, the Holy See made it known that it was not entirely happy with the results obtained, and among the questions that remained open, there were critical issues for the Church.
However, there was an agreement because the Holy See felt obliged to do everything possible to improve the situation of the oppressed Churches. After all, the same deal could also be considered a sign of hope.
Hungary also had its advantages because the very fact of starting negotiations with the Holy See would have strengthened the international prestige of the Hungarian government and also in the field of peace, so dear to the communist regimes.
The Holy See obtained limited results from the agreement, which instead allowed Hungary to recognize the status quo and legitimacy of the regime and strengthen the international authority of the Kádár government.
Yet, Fejérdy writes, “the events that followed the signature of the agreement also validated the opinion of those who claimed the lack of guarantees and stressed that the communists could not be trusted. The new arrests and the continued practice of severely restricting religious freedom showed that the situation of the Hungarian Church did not improve after the agreement. Instead, it deteriorated.”
The parallelism with China, where there is no improvement in religious freedom, is also evident here.
Finally, Fejérdy notes that “Casaroli tried to defend the agreement against criticism and continued to affirm that despite the difficulties, the compromise brought more advantages than disadvantages, but he recognized: without adequate guarantees, or at least without comprehensive information, there was no great probability to assert the interests of the Church.”
“He considered the most important task, therefore, to gather information on the site: during further negotiations, he repeatedly urged that he be able to regularly send a semi-official Vatican envoy to Hungary, with diplomatic immunities.”
The Holy See is willing to expand bilateral relations, following the same principle as the agreements signed with Hungary in 1964.
In reaching the agreement with China, a long-standing diplomatic line already drawn up by the Holy See was followed. However, it was a path that changed under St. John Paul II — who still wanted Casaroli as his secretary of state — and had not returned with Benedict XVI.
The priority, however, remains that of meeting the needs of the oppressed Church and guaranteeing episcopal succession. It is the means used for change.