For years, the media have reported that the Holy See is “poised” to make a deal with China over bishops’ appointments. Last Saturday, it finally happened. The Vatican announced that it had signed a “provisional agreement” with the communist authorities, but offered few specifics. It shared just two significant details: that the Pope has created a new suffragan diocese of the See of Beijing and has readmitted to full communion eight bishops (one deceased) who were ordained without papal approval.

Is this a far-sighted move that will reconcile the divided Chinese Church, or a shameful betrayal of “underground” Catholics? The answer seems to depend on which historical precedent we compare it to: post-revolutionary France or 1930s Germany.

Some suggest that the deal is similar to the 1801 Concordat between Pius VII and Napoleon. Then, the pope made extraordinary concessions to the secular regime, asking French bishops to resign their sees and permitting the government to nominate their successors. While the Vatican appeared to concede too much, the agreement arguably helped to revive French Catholicism after its near suppression.

Others compare the China deal to the notorious Reichskonkordat of 1933. The treaty, between the Holy See and the emergent Nazi Germany, supposedly guaranteed the Church’s rights while banning clergy from party politics. The regime immediately began to violate the treaty, prompting an exasperated Pope Pius XI to issue the anti-Nazi encyclical Mit brennender Sorge four years later.

So which does the China pact most closely resemble: the 1801 Concordat or the Reichskonkordat? It is impossible to say, because we know so little about the precise arrangements. Besides, all historical analogies are imperfect. Contemporary China is neither Napoleonic France nor Nazi Germany. It is a 1.4 billion-strong, rapidly modernising country that is projecting its growing power around the world, while tightening restrictions at home. The ruling Communist Party seems to have learned that it cannot simply eliminate Christianity. Instead, it seeks to contain it with a combination of red tape and brute force.

When the Vatican announced the agreement, it did not claim that it had secured a future of peace and prosperity for China’s at least 10 million Catholics. Choosing his words carefully, Cardinal Pietro Parolin – the deal’s architect – said that the Holy See’s objective was to create the conditions for “greater freedom, autonomy and organisation” for the Church. The deal then is tentative and tactical, and falls short of establishing full diplomatic relations.

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