Letter from Rome
There’s a famous scene in Woody Allen’s classic 1977 movie Annie Hall in which he and Diane Keaton are having separate sessions with a couples’ counsellor, and their exchanges are shown on a split screen. When the therapist asks how often they’re intimate, Allen says, “Hardly ever, maybe three times a week,” and Keaton replies, “Constantly, I’d say three times a week.”
The point is that often two people can look at exactly the same set of facts and draw diametrically opposing conclusions.
The thought comes to mind in light of a small news item out of the Vatican this week, one which didn’t really make any waves against the backdrop of the latest papal press conference and Francis’s words on abortion and communion, gay marriage, COVID vaccines, and so on.
The news is that a new bishop has been appointed in Wuhan, China, under the terms of the controversial “provision agreement” signed by the Vatican and the Chinese government in September 2018. Bishop Francis Cui Qingqi, 57, becomes the sixth Chinese bishop named under the terms of the agreement, and the fourth since the deal was renewed by both Rome and Beijing last October for another two years.
According to Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni, Pope Francis appointed Bishop Qingqi as the bishop of the Diocese of Hankou/Wuhan on June 23 and his episcopal ordination took place on September 8 in Wuhan.
On its own, the news probably would be of passing global interest since Wuhan is the city where the first Covid cases were reported and where some conspiracy theorists continue to believe the virus escaped from a research lab and the truth of the matter is being covered up by the Chinese government.
What has garnered more attention in the Catholic world, however, is that Bishop Qingqi apparently is very much a government man. In 2016 he became deputy secretary of China’s state-sponsored bishops’ conference, considered by critics to be a rump organisation beholden to the state, and in 2018 he became the regional president of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association for Hubei, a body that effectively supervises and controls the Church on behalf of the government.
Since 2012, Bishop Qingqi has led a five-member “management committee” for the Diocese of Wuhan imposed by the government, a decidedly non-canonical form of ecclesiastical leadership, but one with which Bishop Qingqi obviously was willing to go along to keep the peace.
Critics of the China deal note that Bishop Qingqi basically has the same profile as the other five prelates appointed under its terms, meaning clerics known for being close to the government and unlikely to rock the boat. They suspected from the beginning the provisional agreement was nothing more than a tool for China’s Communist authorities to extend their control over the Church and to muzzle critics of Chinese policies such as retired Cardinal Joseph Zen, and this string of new bishops has done nothing but confirm those reservations.
Yet the Vatican architects of the deal likely will look at the same situation and draw a very different conclusion. What they would say is that for the first time since the Communist takeover in China in 1949, all the country’s Catholic bishops are now both accepted by the government and in communion with the Pope.
Last October, as the deadline for renewal of the China deal was nearing, I sat down with British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States and effectively the head of the Vatican diplomatic corps. In our conversation, he laid out the logic for the provision agreement.
“We have to remember, something had to happen,” Archbishop Gallagher told me. “Otherwise, we would have found ourselves – not immediately, but ten years down the line – with very few bishops, if any, still in communion with the Pope. If we don’t begin now, that’s the future.”
“The fact we have managed to get all the bishops of China in communion with the Holy Father for the first time since the 1950s, and that the Chinese authorities allow the Pope a modest say in the appointment of bishops but ultimately the final word, is quite remarkable,” he said.
Archbishop Gallagher readily conceded the arrangement is far from ideal. Among other things, he said it’s extremely difficult to vet candidates for bishops’ jobs in China because the Vatican doesn’t have an ambassador there, who usually collects information before an appointment is made, and other channels of communication are few and far between, especially ones not controlled by the state.
Nevertheless, he insisted it’s the right choice to ensure the long-term future of the Church in China.
“Who knows what obstacles are ahead of us in the next few years?” he said. “We don’t know. But as things stand at the moment, we do have, slowly, the possibility of moving forward.”
In other words, if upholders and critics of the China deal had therapy sessions this week, their exchanges about the new Wuhan bishop might have gone as follows.
Critic: “He’s a government man, it’s terrible.”
Upholder: “He’s a government man, it’s better than the alternative.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the crux of the debate.