The China deal raises serious questions over who exactly should be appointing prelates

The Vatican has signed an agreement with China on the appointment of bishops. The Vatican statement is remarkably uninformative and the reason for that can only be that there is very little to communicate. This is not some huge deal encompassing all the outstanding issues between China and the Church. That may indeed come at some future point, and my hope is that it does come when and if China becomes a democracy, not before.

In the meantime, we have this ‘provisional’ deal which effectively rehabilitates several state-appointed bishops and makes them into Vatican-recognised bishops. Someone in the Vatican must have thought this a desirable idea, on the grounds that this not only brings the illegal bishops in from the cold, but brings in their flocks too, even if the state-appointed bishops are not the sort of men who ought to be bishops at all, or even priests, in some cases.

That this is a low-level deal is to be seen in the signatories. It is not signed by the heads of state, President Xi and the Pope; it is not even signed by second ranking dignitaries. The Chinese signatory is the deputy foreign minister Wang Chao, according to the Vatican. But Mr Wang is one of eleven principal officials of the Foreign Ministry, as the Ministry’s own website tells us.

As for the Vatican signer, that was not a cardinal, an archbishop or even just a bishop, but a mere monsignor, in this case Mgr Antoine Camilleri, who is the Vatican’s undersecretary for foreign relations. Mgr Camilleri is liked and respected and enjoys a close personal friendship with Cardinal Mamberti now the Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, but formerly his boss over at the Vatican’s foreign ministry. But the fact remains that if this were some major deal one could have expected it to have been signed off by Cardinal Parolin himself.

Of course, critics are right to point out that this treaty represents a backward step for the Church, given that it allows a government to appoint bishops, something that the Church has struggled against for centuries. While the Bourbons and the Hapsburgs exercised this power, they were at least, for the most part, devout Catholics; Mr Xi, who now has the same power, not so much.

And here we get to a wider consideration that is of interest to the whole Church, not just the Catholics of China. Who should be and who is consulted when bishops are appointed? If Mr Xi gets a say, why can’t the rest of us? If a Communist and an atheist is consulted, indeed has a deciding voice, what about those millions of faithful Catholics around the world who are never consulted about the choice of their pastors?

If the Vatican is to allow the Chinese government to have a role in the appointment of bishops, it must surely expect the laity and the lesser clergy worldwide to ask why a similar privilege is not granted to them too.