Reports emerged Monday that Vatican officials have been pressuring two Chinese Catholic bishops to resign their offices in order to be replaced with bishops favored by the Chinese government. The Vatican has not confirmed or denied the reports.
The move is seen as a betrayal of an underground church that has suffered decades of persecution precisely because of its loyalty to Rome. The situation is complicated by large numbers of Catholics who are members in the Communist-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
The Vatican, for its part, considers the status quo—a legitimate, underground church existing alongside a government-approved church with partial recognition from Rome—to be an unacceptable long-term solution.
For years, the biggest point of contention between the Vatican and Chinese officials has been the appointment of bishops. Rome recognizes the legitimacy of all the bishops of the underground church, but only some bishops of the government-approved church.
From Rome’s point of view, the argument is not merely about political control; it’s theological. A bishop is not only irreplaceable to the sacramental life of the church, he is a sign of the church’s unity in Christ. To paraphrase the second-century St. Ignatius of Antioch: Wherever the bishop is, there is the Catholic Church.
So it’s not surprising that the Vatican would want to resolve the confusion about who is, and who is not, a bishop. But turning the nomination of bishops over to Communist authorities jeopardizes the moral legitimacy of the church in rather obvious ways. One of the state-approved bishops supposedly in the queue to replace the current, legitimate bishop was excommunicated in 2011. Legitimate prelates were forced to attend his ordination—essentially kidnapped and dragged there—by government thugs.
It’s not clear whether the recent approach to the Chinese question is more a priority of Pope Francis (it certainly has his approval, and he has expressed a desire to visit there) or reflects the long-standing priorities of the Vatican’s diplomatic establishment, but there have been signs that something is afoot for months. The international Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica—edited by a close confidant of the pope—has lately been publishing a great deal about the promise of new changes toward China. New York-based America Magazine (also Jesuit run) has been doing much the same. Nor is it likely a coincidence that Cardinal Joseph Zen—the former bishop of Hong Kong and an outspoken critic of Vatican rapprochement with the Chinese government—was in Rome recently to meet with Pope Francis.
Where all this will end is unclear. The Vatican wants to normalize the situation of the church in China and needs to improve relations with the government to do that. What the Vatican will be willing to give up to get that deal remains to be seen. But as the rapid growth of Christianity in China continues, the Vatican seems on the verge of allying itself with the greatest obstacle to that growth. Allying oneself with a Communist regime with such a brutal (and ongoing) history of persecution makes no sense as a missionary strategy.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.