What about the Chinese deal?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 24, 2018

Many Catholics are incredulous that Pope Francis has reached an agreement with the government of China. The agreement allows the government to nominate acceptable candidates for each bishopric, and stipulates that the Pope will choose one of these proposed candidates.

I have only one significant comment to make about this agreement: It is not unusual.

Throughout the history of the Church, candidates for the episcopacy have been selected by a wide variety of means, ranging from popular acclamation to the choice of the reigning monarch. While a bishop has no canonical authority until he has been confirmed by the Pope, it has been quite common for popes to allow the candidates to be selected by others.

This was certainly true in the early centuries of the Church when the papacy did not have constant, extensive contact with distant regions. It was also true through both informal and formal agreements with any number of powerful nobles or monarchs in the medieval and early modern period, leaders whose patronage extended over a particular region or who wished to ensure that the Churchmen in their own territories would not try to undermine their authority.

How the selection of candidates for the episcopate is made in any given place and time generally results from a combination of circumstances on the ground, local custom, and the strength of the Church in Rome as compared with the strength of governments which are either hostile to the Church or at least wary of the Church’s political influence in their own territories.

As such, selection methods are primarily exercises in prudence. It is also useful to remember that no method infallibly produces exemplary candidates. Indeed, history suggests that no method, including absolute Vatican control, even usually produces exemplary candidates. As exercises in prudence, these methodologies can only be evaluated by the very fallible mind game of comparing the overall situation of the Church under the resulting bishops with the unknown situation that might have been likely under other circumstances.

In each of the historical situations in which methods of episcopal nomination have been subject to negotiation, there have been parties on multiple sides with many good reasons to suppose that the method chosen would turn out badly, just as there have been parties who have believed this method was the best possible in the circumstances—if only the best of a bad lot!

In other words, only time will tell. And because complex situations are constantly changing, even time will not tell perfectly. Accordingly, it is foolish to condemn those who may disagree with our own preferences. And for those of us who know very little about the problems and possibilities in a particular time and place, it is very likely foolish even to insist that some other solution is both eminently feasible and obviously better.

In the wake of decisions like this, it is best to take a breath, and remain at peace.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dianekortan5972 - Sep. 25, 2018 11:08 PM ET USA

    Amen!

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Sep. 25, 2018 8:03 PM ET USA

    So how will the Bishop instruct his priests about the confessional and the question of abortion and contraception? Does anyone seriously think the Bishops being appointed will agree with the Church?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 25, 2018 10:52 AM ET USA

    Actually, I don't trust anybody to choose good episcopal candidates. But we should keep in mind that the goal of this sort of arrangement is for the "other party" to nominate at least one candidate that both parties find acceptable, thus giving the Pope somebody whom he can in good conscience select among those whom the government believes will not work actively to undermine its secular authority. Not uncommonly, those who do not understand the Church, view it as a "foreign power". This was actually a legitimate issue at times among the rulers in the West, and it is definitely a big issue in China, where this "foreign church" does not fit into their understanding of the world.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Sep. 25, 2018 10:31 AM ET USA

    Yes, but in the past, these princes and states that had a hand in choosing bishops were at least Christian, if imperfectly so. The Chinese government certainly is not Christian. Neither is the U.S. government, and I wouldn't trust it to choose bishops, either.

  • Posted by: wacondaseeds4507 - Sep. 24, 2018 10:01 PM ET USA

    A few important distinctions in this case include communist China being an atheistic authoritarian government that insists Chinese interests are first and foremost. In other words, those in authority choosing the episcopal candidates want a Chinese Catholic Church, not a Roman Catholic Church. This seems indisputable.

  • Posted by: Eric - Sep. 24, 2018 3:58 PM ET USA

    I agree. These type of arrangements involve complex give and take, and as you have pointed out, historically the Pope often did not often select candidates. Let's pray this heals the Church in China!