In essence, as is always the case when Roman Catholicism meets Communism, it is the clash of two massive powers, both of which want to exercise absolute control over millions of people. The Roman Catholic institution wants to exercise absolute control not only over its own people but over the entire world – and so does Communism. The Chinese Communist government wants absolute control over the Chinese Roman Catholic institution – and the Roman Catholic institution wants absolute control over China. And in order to gain this absolute control eventually, the Vatican has agreed to surrender some of its authority over the appointment of Chinese bishops. This was even admitted by Francis I himself to reporters, when he said after the signing that with every “peace treaty” (as he called it) and every negotiation, “both sides lose something”, and for the Vatican this was the loss of complete control over the nomination of bishops. But as far as Rome was concerned, this was a small sacrifice worth making, for the advantages to be gained by having greater political influence over China.
One of the many Romanists who opposed the accord was a priest named Sergio Ticozzi, a Roman Catholic expert on China. As he put it: “If the Vatican is now ready to recognize bishops with lovers and children, obedient first of all to the [Chinese Communist] Party and its political pawns from their entrance into the seminary, in the future it will pose no resistance to any candidate that the Chinese authorities propose or for the dioceses they set.”
He misses the Vatican’s own agenda in all this – which is to influence Chinese government policy itself via its own bishops. But he is still correct in understanding how the Chinese will view it – and what they will seek to gain from the accord. Ticozzi assumed that the Roman Catholic religion in China will be under China’s absolute control with this accord. This is incorrect. He fails to see that both sides are in fact compromising, because both want something out of this and both are going to get something out of it.
The Vatican would rather have Chinese bishops who are Communists and supporters of the Chinese government, but at the same time in communion with Rome, than no Roman Catholic influence over the Chinese government at all.
There was an immediate indication of what all this would mean, when, as part of the agreement, seven Chinese bishops of the State-controlled Catholic “Church”, who until the signing were regarded as illegitimately appointed as far as the Vatican was concerned because they were Communist agents appointed by the Chinese Communist Party and were not in communion with Rome, were now to be acknowledged and recognised as bishops in full communion with Rome. So would others who had previously been excommunicated by Rome.
From China’s side, then, the agreement would mean that the Vatican would recognise bishops who are in fact agents of the Communist State, thereby placing them within the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic institution; and from the Vatican’s side, it would mean that the Roman Catholic institution would receive official recognition in China, with its own approved bishops also being recognised by the Chinese authorities. “For Pope Francis and the Vatican, the accord is expected to open up new spaces of legal action for the Catholic Church in China”.
A win-win situation for both Rome and China.