Every power in the world must now come to terms with China’s rise to superpower status; last week it was the turn of the Vatican, a global soft superpower. An opaque and ambiguous agreement seems to have resolved decades of diplomatic stalemate over the appointment of bishops for China’s 12 million Catholics, although that figure, too, is shrouded in uncertainty. The Chinese authorities have for decades demanded that they, and not some foreign power, should choose their country’s religious leaders; the Vatican has for just as long resisted. Now it appears that the pope will recover the power to choose bishops, but only from a shortlist nominated by the government.
The agreement enraged those who feel that there can be no compromise with the Beijing government. An unknown number of priests and bishops, perhaps 12, are still detained in China, and some are believed to have died in prison. This agreement does nothing for them. On the other hand, it does not involve full diplomatic relations between Beijing and Rome, which would require the Vatican to give up its recognition of Taiwan.
The suppression of an independent Catholic hierarchy may not be as dreadful as the sustained and savage campaigns of persecution against the Buddhists of Tibet and the Muslims of Xinjiang, but is part of a general trend. In recent years the repression of Christian churches of all types has increased. After a great blossoming of religion following the death of Mao, the authorities are clearly trying to control the energies they have unleashed. This shows the immense importance that the party attaches to religious beliefs. In countries where religion is taken seriously, disputes over who should name bishops can grow very violent. They are also intimately connected with national self-consciousness. The English Reformation was a complicated affair, but one strand of it was an argument over who should wield the powers of the pope in England, in which Henry VIII played the part of Xi Jinping today. Henry II had Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in a power struggle over the control of the church. The Chinese Communist party is as ruthless and jealous of power as any medieval king, but since the death of Mao (who was responsible for the deaths of around 500,000 Christians) its methods have been more up to date.
Although there are only 12 million Catholics in China, there may be eight or nine times as many Protestants. Their churches also exist on sufferance. They are extremely difficult to count accurately, partly for that reason. But they have grown steadily since the end of Maoist repression, and even though they have no security they are not persecuted nearly as intensively as some other religions. Some estimates say that in 15 years’ time China will have the largest number of Christians in the world. This is not the religious future Mr Xi wanted. On his way up through the party hierarchy he was distinguished by his encouragement of traditional Chinese forms of religion.
So the stakes are very high for both sides in these negotiations. In the 20th century the Vatican faced, and defeated, an existential challenge from communism. Chinese authoritarian nationalism is a new challenge, one that aims to use technology to control the morals and the imagination of its citizens in ways that the Inquisition could only dream of. It is difficult to imagine that either side in this struggle will triumph completely. It will be years or decades before it is clear who has come out ahead. But last week’s agreement means the contestants can engage in earnest, and perhaps without overt violence.