The clear impression is that they were chosen by the government in Beijing

Participants in the synod of bishops which started this week in Rome were appointed by various means. National bishops’ conferences elected their bishop delegates, certain curial officials are participating ex officio, the eastern Churches had their designated representatives, and the Holy Father has appointed additional participants. Finally, the Chinese Communist Party made its appointments.

Let me explain. The revised apostolic constitution governing the synod, published just weeks ago by Pope Francis, did not include any provision for the Chinese communists to have their appointments, but things are moving fast in Rome.

The agreement signed on September 22 between the Holy See and China – or, in effect, with the Communist Party of China, which was given control over all religious affairs earlier this year – remains secret, so nobody really knows what is in it. Perhaps there was a clause related to synod appointments. Perhaps not. To be exact, only the Chinese know what they have agreed to, because China regularly violates many of the trade, intellectual property and monetary agreements it makes. So the Holy See, to say nothing of Catholics in China, will have to wait to see what in fact they ended up with.

We do know that Pope Francis – who took personal, immediate responsibility for the China accord during his airborne press conference returning from Estonia – agreed to lift the excommunications on seven bishops illicitly consecrated by the “Patriotic Association”, the puppet Church set up by the Chinese regime.

In a gesture of ill will, the Chinese communist authorities announced themselves who would attend the current synod in Rome. Such announcements, of course, are customarily made by the Holy See. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri announced that the two bishops “had been invited” by the Holy Father, which they must be to enter the synod, but the clear impression given was that they were chosen not by Rome but by Beijing.

It will be fascinating to see if bishops appointed by China will recommend to the synod the recent Chinese government practice of banning children from attending religious services. It’s unlikely that the synod on youth would otherwise consider that pastoral strategy.

The two prelates selected by Beijing are John Baptist Yang Xiaoting, Bishop of Yan’an-Yulin, and Joseph Guo Jincai, Bishop of Chengde. The latter, almost certainly chosen for the maximum possible provocation, was one of the bishops excommunicated until the day before yesterday. He also serves as general secretary of the Patriotic Association “episcopal conference” for Chinese bishops, which still does not include the “underground” bishops who are in communion with Rome, legitimately consecrated, but not recognised by the regime.

In his 2007 letter to Catholics in China, Benedict XVI stipulated clearly that the Patriotic Association faux-episcopal conference was illegitimate as it was “governed by statutes that contain elements incompatible with Catholic doctrine”. The faux-conference may not be recognised by Rome, but its leadership will be in the synod hall. Or perhaps the secret deal with China made the episcopal conference legitimate too.

On the return flight from Estonia, Pope Francis pointed out that for hundreds of years the Spanish and Portuguese crowns appointed bishops – though that, “thank God”, was no longer the case. More recently, the Church had arrangements with odious 20th-century regimes, most notably communist Poland. All true, but a key teaching at Vatican II was that the Church must have absolute freedom in the appointment of her bishops, and that no state role is legitimate. The Chinese accord thus appears contradictory to the teaching of an ecumenical council, later codified in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Pope Francis has the authority to amend those canons if he chooses, and perhaps has done so, though the code is not really subject to secret revision.

What can the Catholics of China hope for? Perhaps the best is the Wojtyła factor. Karol Wojtyła was ordained 60 years ago last week, on September 28, 1958, the anniversary falling just days after the accord was signed. The new auxiliary bishop of Kraków was very young, only 38, but both Church and state recognised that he was something extraordinary.

Six years later, when it came time to appoint a new archbishop of Kraków, the protocols worked out in 1956 were applied. The Church chose its own nominee, but the Polish communists could veto it. And they did, vetoing seven consecutive candidates, making it known that they would continue vetoing until the Church proposed Wojtyła. That wasn’t the spirit of the agreement, but communists aren’t too bothered about keeping either to the spirit or the letter. Eventually, the Church put up Wojtyła, and the communists agreed. It was the greatest miscalculation in the history of communism.

The Polish state was liberalising itself towards religion when the 1956 protocols were agreed, and even the Polish communists understood that Catholicism was central to Polish identity. Neither applies in China, where the state is actually tightening the screws on religion.

But might Providence have another Wojtyła surprise in store?

This article first appeared in the October 5 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here