Chinese Whispers


The signing of a Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China concerning the appointment of Bishops is of great importance, especially for the life of the Church in China, for the dialogue between the Holy See and the Authorities of that country and for the promotion of a horizon of peace in this present time in which we experience so many tensions at the international level.”

So Cardinal Parolin, in rather inflated terms, on an arrangement which will give the Chinese government an unprecedented say in the appointment of Catholic bishops.

If any institution in the world might be expected to have a long memory, it would surely be the Catholic Church. So you would have thought that sometime, during the protracted negotiations with the Chinese government over the appointment of bishops, someone would have remembered that we have been here before.

If memory serves, when George IV was still Regent, and the Papal diplomat, Cardinal (sic) Ercole Consalvi was hob-nobbing with the Carlton House set, one of the matters under discussion, leading up (as was hoped) to Catholic Emancipation, was the role of the British monarch in the future appointment of Catholic bishops. The tentative proposal was, in exchange for extended civil rights, that the Holy See should nominate bishops and that the Crown would have a veto. (The mirror image of what is now being enacted with China.)

The Irish* (as might be expected) were adamantly opposed to such an arrangement, as was the English hierarchy then existing (in this case, Talbot and Douglass, Vicars Apostolic of the London region). The chief supporters of the scheme were the old recusant nobility, who saw the arrangement as a fair exchange for their being allowed to strut their ancestral ermine in the House of Lords (in those days more influential than it has subsequently become).

The discussions, as it turned out, proved premature. The restoration of the hierarchy had to wait until Universalis Ecclesiae in 1850, at which time Pius IX felt obliged to make no concessions to, or agreement with, the Protestant authorities.

In retrospect it does not appear that that these arrangements did much to extend ‘horizons of peace’ or diminish ‘tensions at the international level’. But times, as they now say, have changed.

*Act of Union 1801.

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