Compared in terms of state territory, economic power, or nuclear might, no two places differ more than China and Vatican City, the world’s largest and smallest countries. But measured as two empires with indelible historical presence, communal identity, and cultural wealth, China and the Holy See share a lot—including a sense of time in which decades are a standard planning unit rather than weeks or months. That is why Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis’ apparent resolution of a 70-year-old power struggle over who has the right to select Catholic bishops is so noteworthy.
As part of its effort to create an independent church free from outside interference in the 1950s, the Chinese regime exerted its right to appoint Catholic bishops, a sacrilege in the eyes of the Holy See, which considers ordination a papal prerogative. According to Catholic ecclesiology, bishops secure global unity and inherit a mission traced back to the 12 apostles; it is the pope who secures this divine apostolic succession. Believers who refused to renounce Rome or recognize a state-ordained leadership created a clandestine church. Into 2012, Beijing still unilaterally named a bishop and sequestered those who defied government oversight. But since the accession of Pope Francis, Beijing and Rome have worked out an ad hoc process of mutual approvals. Since it is informal, confusion remains, disunity festers, vacancies increase, and, in theory, either side could break the fragile equilibrium. Thus: semisecret negotiations over the last three years.
Last month, Hong Kong Archbishop Cardinal John Tong Hon, 77, announced that Beijing and Rome have “already reached consensus” on episcopal appointments. According to Tong, Chinese bishops and state authorities will recommend episcopal candidates and the pope will have a “right of veto.” The agreement is described as a game changer because it confirms the pope as final authority regarding bishops, but it is also a future-oriented solution not intended to resolve other persistent disagreements. It won’t automatically normalize the status of remaining underground bishops, for example, and
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