The ordination last week of two Chinese bishops, Joseph Tang Yuange in Sichuan province and John Baptist Wang Xiaoxun in Shanxi province, both approved by the Vatican, appears to confirm reports that China and the Vatican are close to an agreement on the crucial issue of how bishops of the Roman Catholic Church are to be chosen.

Since the early days of the People’s Republic of China, the Communist Party has pressed the Catholic Church not to “interfere” in China’s internal affairs while the Vatican has insisted that the appointment of bishops is a matter for the church.

In 1957, the Communist Party created the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association to control the nation’s Catholics. Since then, the Vatican has worried about a schismatic church in China. Schism recently has been on the mind of Pope Francis. In late October, he began a yearlong series of events to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation launched by Martin Luther in 1517.

Today, there are 9 million Catholics in China, mostly members of the official patriotic association. However, more than 3 million are with the “underground” church and recognize the authority of the pope. Both “patriotic” and “underground” churches have bishops, some recognized by the Vatican, some by China and some by both.

While details of the Vatican-China accord have not been released, Cardinal John Tong, the bishop of Hong Kong, in a pastoral letter July 31 disclosed that “the Chinese government is now willing to reach an understanding” on the issue.

Tong discussed the possibility of the Vatican in future recognizing the legitimacy of a bishops conference in China, which would “have the right and responsibility to recommend episcopal candidates they consider as suitable to the pope.”

Such a conference would include both “patriotic” and “underground” bishops. Some in the underground church who had suffered greatly over the years might see it as a betrayal of their trust. There also would be the issue of previous papal condemnation of the patriotic association.

Tong’s predecessor as bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, is a vocal critic of a Vatican-China accord, with The Guardian newspaper quoting him as saying that such a deal would be “betraying Jesus Christ.” The 84-year-old cardinal also said that “official” bishops “are not really preaching the gospel” but are “preaching obedience to Communist authority.”

China, with a population of 1.4 billion, and the Vatican, with 1.2 billion believers across the world, each thinks in terms of millennia. Little wonder, then, that they have not reached agreement in more than 65 years on an issue that each considers crucial to its interests.

The Catholic Church has shared authority before with communist governments in the appointment of its bishops, in Eastern Europe before the end of the Cold War and in Vietnam today. But it has to take extra care in dealing with China, which is in a league of its own.

The Vatican can rationalize that, ultimately, it decides whether to appoint any of the candidates short-listed by China. And it can in theory refuse to appoint any of them. But it has to realize that it is allowing agents of a party out to obtain total control of the church to nominate its bishops. Is this a price worth paying?

Moreover, the church should not confuse the Communist Party with the Chinese people. In his pastoral letter, Tong repeatedly used the expression “the people of China,” saying that the Catholic Church respects “the people of China” and wishes to give time for “the people of China” to come to know the church, so that they will come to understand that “she is not an enemy of the country or an outside invader.”

So far, discussion between China and the Vatican seems to have been confined to the issue of bishops, rather than normalization of diplomatic relations. The Vatican is the last remaining government in Europe — indeed, in the West — to maintain relations with Taiwan. China would score a diplomatic coup if the Vatican were to sever ties with the island.

The Catholic Church should carefully consider what is at stake before making a decision it may come to regret. After all, 65 years is nothing compared to 2,000 years of Christianity or even the five centuries since the establishment of Protestantism. Besides, was the Protestant Reformation such a bad thing? After all, the Catholic Church itself was a major beneficiary of the reforms that it was forced to launch.

Veteran journalist Frank Ching writes on China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

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