01/03/2019, 10.57
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The China-Vatican agreement and the accord between Napoleon and Pius VII

by Li Ruohan

An author from northern China reveals how the Vatican and Chinese Church are reliving the experience of the Church in France during the Revolution and the Napoleonic empire.  The comparison is startlingly apt in the details: restructuring of the dioceses; state power over the Church; (purely formal) recognition of the Pope; total control of religious activities; elimination of bishops and "non-sworn" priests (or underground).

Beijing (AsiaNews) - The agreement between China and the Holy See is very similar to the one signed between Napoleon and Pius VII. The startlingly apt comparison is fitting in many aspects: the restructuring of the dioceses; power over the Church; recognition (only formal) of the Pope; total control of religious activities; elimination of bishops and "non-sworn" priests (or underground). The author, Li Ruohan (a pseudonym) is a scholar from northern China. The original title of the essay is "What is illegal has become legal".

On December 12th I saw the images of the Holy See special envoy, Archbishop Claudio M. Celli, at the Diaoyuetai, the state hotel for illustrious guests. He was accompanied by two Chinese bishops with whom he appeared to be on friendly terms. A pleasant image was presented to the world. It was reputed to have been the start of the demanding process to reach an agreement between the Holy See and China. A reason to rejoice and for congratulations.

Archbishop Celli contributed greatly to this. Only he was unable to remain a few more days, to go to Nanjing and attend the ceremony to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the "independent" election and ordination of the first Chinese bishops. He could have shared his experience with the bishops and heard the speeches of the authorities. What a pity!

According to press releases, the Pope granted seven bishops jurisdiction over the administration of dioceses by officially nominating them as ordinary bishops; of the two clandestine bishops, one was asked to withdraw, the other to become auxiliary. This is one of the results of the agreement, which has not yet been made public.

Like Napoleon

Seeing such results one cannot help but think of the Concordat between the State and the Church of France signed by Napoleon in 1801. To understand this Concordat, we need to remember the situation at that time. In 1789 the French revolution broke out. After revolutionaries seized power, the Catholic Church became their first target. Whether Girondins or Jacobins, they pursued a policy of ferocious persecution against the Church. The Church of France was subjected to a terrible trial.

On 12 July 1790 the revolutionary party promulgated the civil constitution of the clergy, the nucleus of which was a new subdivision of the French dioceses. Before the revolution, France had 134 dioceses. The revolutionaries law aimed to unify the dioceses. First of all, the dioceses would be divided according to the boundaries of the administrative regions of the State, reducing them to 51. Secondly, the bishops would be chosen and ordained autonomously. France would have a primate; all the other bishops of France would receive their faculties from the primate. The bishops would be elected by the priests of the diocese. The choice would be made by the priests and some local representatives; even the laity would participate in the election. Third, the primate bishop of France would be proposed by the government, without pontifical appointment. Fourth and very important, all the clergy of France, including bishops and priests, would have to swear an oath, called the "oath of loyalty". Only after having sworn this oath, would French clergy be allowed to fulfill their public ministry. Those who refused to swear would be judged illegal, not recognized by the French State, considered enemies of the revolution and punishable under the law.

At that time France had 131 bishops out of 134 dioceses. The bishop's seat was vacant  in three diocese. Only four of the 131 bishops signed. Of these four, two returned to secular life, including Talleyrand, who was then placed at the head of the Church by the French revolutionary government and several times proceeded to administer sacraments. Less than a third of the 100,000 French priests took the oath; two thirds refused to swear. These became the group of non-sworn priests. French Catholics began not to attend churches and refused to receive the sacraments from the hands of sworn priests. The priests who had refused to swear retreated to the countryside of France, where they secretly celebrated mass and administered the sacraments in the homes of the faithful, constituting the group of the non-sworn priests of France.

Two Churches

For some time two churches existed  in France: one formed by the sworn priests who served in public churches; the other by priests who ministered largely in the countryside and even in houses in the city. The non-sworn priests celebrated in secrecy and were called illegal. The revolutionaries started hunting the priests who refused to swear. Many were jailed and many others put to death by revolutionaries. Those who know the history of the Church know of the martyrs of that time.

This radical and fanatical policy of persecution failed to eliminate the Church, but eventually caused division. On 9 November 1799 Napoleon led a military coup and created a government of which he was the head. In politics he was a pragmatist. "In France - he says - I govern people: I am Catholic. In Egypt where I dominated, I was a Muslim. If I were to rule the Holy Land and Jerusalem, I would rebuild the temple of Solomon to make the Jews happy. "

To resolve the dispute with the Church, Napoleon initiated talks with the Holy See. At that time, the Pope, Pius VII, appointed Cardinal Consalvi, who was Secretary of State, in charge of the negotiations. After half a year of negotiations between the two parties, a concordat between State and Church was signed in Paris on 15 July 1801. In the Concordat the French government recognizes the Roman Catholic Church as the religion of the majority of the French people. The Catholic Church has an inseparable relationship with the history of the French people. In French history it has played an irreplaceable role. It is therefore right that there is freedom to practice and believe.

This point is apparently commendable and appears aimed at restoring the freedom of the Church of France. But later the government asked the Holy See to make a new division of the dioceses. At the time of the revolution the 134 dioceses of France were forcibly divided, but the Holy See never recognized the unilateral actions of the French government. However, in the Concordat signed by Napoleon, the Holy See is forced to make concessions, to again divide the dioceses of France, making them correspond to the administrative regions, and to found new ones. The 134 original dioceses are reduced to 60, including 10 archdioceses.

All the bishops of France, both those who in the past swore the oath and those who refused to swear, had to resign. The head of the French state, that is, Napoleon, has the power to propose bishops, but the power to bestow jurisdiction is left to the Pope. Regarding the selection of candidates, the most widespread criterion is that they are politically reliable. All the clergy of France, bishops and priests, must take an oath of loyalty to the state. The Church also must renounce the assets confiscated at the time of the revolution. As compensation for the losses, the French government took the maintenance of the clergy upon itself, giving them a subsidy. Moreover the bishops would be obliged to collaborate with the local authorities, in order to proceed with the division between dioceses and parishes.

Promises never kept

The Concordat of 1801 apparently implements the normalization of relations between the French government and the Holy See, and results the Church of France enjoying a long period of peace. But this peace came at the expense of large concessions and many losses suffered by the Church. After the signing of the Concordat, at the time of publication in France, Napoleon arbitrarily adds 77 articles. These 77 articles were added completely unilaterally by the French government, without any further agreement with the Holy See. Among the articles: the meetings between Pope and bishops must be approved by the French government. Even important Roman documents, papal encyclicals, motu proprios, some doctrinal or moral texts must be approved by government before being issued in France.

Seminary professors and the laity must obey the provisions of Gallicanism of those years. The French Church is only permitted to make use of doctrinal texts approved by the French government for the formation of the laity. The bishops cannot hold meetings without the prior approval of the French government. According to the model of the past, the papal nuncios had the right to visit the dioceses; the representative of the Pope had the right to travel to understand the local situation, also to ensure a close collaboration between the Holy See and the local bishops. However, in one of the added articles, it is clearly established that if the papal nuncio travels within France, he must obtain government permission.

In these articles, especially those added, we can see that the rights that the Church had enjoyed in the past were trampled on, and that the Church mourned. But at that time the church was eager to improve the relationship with the French nation, and rebuild the previous diplomatic relations. Large concessions were made in haste; moreover, even though a nuncio was sent, he could no longer play the same role as in the past; on the contrary he was manipulated by the French government, which added many clauses which for the Church were not acceptable.

A particularly difficult point: how to deal with the bishops who had been faithful to the Church and the Pope during the period of persecution? What to do with them? At the time of the revolution and of the ferocious persecution, these bishops with their obstinate resistance did not betray the faith and remained faithful to the Holy See. Although the suffering had passed, the experience was still fresh in their hearts. How then deal with this group of bishops who have not sworn? Intimidating the Pope, Napoleon demanded that this problem be resolved as soon as possible. First of all he promised that he would not appoint bishops who at the time of the revolution had sworn and had been bishops of the official Church. In return, he demands the Holy See act. The Holy See had to decide about those bishops who had not belonged to the official Church. In permitting official and non-official bishops of that time resign, the Holy See and the French government agreed to elect new bishops. In exchange for Napoleon's concessions, the Holy See moved swiftly against the group of unofficial bishops. Many bishops reluctantly expressed their obedience to the decision of the Holy See and withdraw.

Ironically, the bishops appointed by Napoleon were all prominent people in the official Church of the past. It must be said that at the time, the idea that it was necessary to break with the Pope and to support the republican government and the men of the revolutionary government was encouraged. Very quickly Napoleon’s promises to the Holy See proved themselves to be empty words. One of the consequences of the Concordat was that those who were illegal became legal; those who were legal stood aside.

After the signing of the Concordat, the Holy See did not get the results it expected. Furthermore, the Concordat did not die with Napoleon. On the contrary: it was continued by the governments of France, both the monarchy and the republican governments, until the beginning of the 20th century. Caught in the midst of enormous turbulence and upheavals,  the Church of France has paid a heavy price.

To the present day          

Looking at the current agreement between the Holy See and China, is the Holy See certain that it is not simply repeating past mistakes, indeed tragedies? Although the Concordat between France and the Church explicitly recognized the Pope as supreme authority of the Church, however, the state did what it wanted. The current agreement between China and the Holy See does not say anything about the authority of the Pope. (Of course, with the exception of some foreign experts who have special functions, they can write anything on their own, they're different from ordinary people and they do not see things the way people see them).

Instead, it is necessary to clearly look at the declarations of the Patriotic Association and the College of Bishops, and the message of the meeting in Nanjing that says: "The Chinese Catholic Church does not accept control or support from foreign religious organizations; it does not allow foreign forces to intervene and interfere in Church affairs in China. It is necessary to maintain the principles of autonomy ["independence"] and self-management. 'Let these principles become the firm consensus of all clergy and laity. That at any moment and in any circumstance it does not waver. In promoting the synicization of religion, autonomy and self-management are the foundations of the peace and stability of the Chinese Catholic Church. "Are these statements sufficiently clear? Did the important members of the Holy See actually see them?

Christmas has passed, with celebrations of various kinds throughout the land of China. The agreement is like a small Christmas gift. We sincerely hope that the tragedies of the past will not be relived. In the darkness before dawn we hope to see the star that leads to hope and that will make us meet the Savior, because time, history, glory and power belong to Him! Forever, Amen!

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