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A canonical look at the Holy See – China issue regarding episcopal appointments

November 29, 2016

Those who, having read Joseph Cdl. Zen, George Weigel, or Yu Jie, are tracking with some trepidation reports on the Holy See’s negotiations with Communist China in regard to, among other things, the appointment of bishops in that land, might find the following points useful.

Paragraph 20 of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Bishops, Christus Dominus (1965), declared: “Since the apostolic office of bishops was instituted by Christ the Lord and pursues a spiritual and supernatural purpose, this sacred ecumenical synod declares that the right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and per se exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority. Therefore, for the purpose of duly protecting the freedom of the Church and of promoting more conveniently and efficiently the welfare of the faithful, this holy council desires that in future no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be granted to civil authorities.”

Canon 377 § 5 of the Johanno-Pauline Code of Canon Law (1983) gives legal expression to this conciliar teaching in these words: “In the future, no rights and privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation of bishops are granted to civil authorities.” This norm, though new in the revised Code, was proposed very early in the post-conciliar revision process and, its good sense being evident to all, sailed through successive drafts of the law without controversy. Peters, Incrementa 334.

Hearkening to the Council’s invitation to surrender rights that, by concordat or custom, they might have enjoyed in regard to the appointment of bishops in their lands, several nations have renounced such rights (GB&I Comm. 216) and joined the many other States that allow the Church a free hand in the designation of Successors of the Apostles.

Although the canonical process for vetting candidates for bishops (see 1983 CIC 377 and Peters, “Confidential consultations in the selection of bishops: law and practice”, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly 34/1 [Spring 2011] 59-63) should be able to identify potential social or political problems with episcopal candidates, a number of states nevertheless enjoy (usually by concordat) an additional right to advance notice of potential episcopal appointments, thereby facilitating communication of concerns, if any, about a given candidate. Exeg. Comm. II/1: 759.

What is at stake in the Holy See’s negotiations with China, however, seems to go beyond Beijing’s receiving advance notice of proposed Roman appointments, to something more like a right to nominate candidates itself and perhaps even to veto those proposed by the pope should the Communists find them unpalatable. Such arrangements, remnants of the old ‘patronage’ system, are observed now only in a tiny handful of locales (Exeg. Comm. II/1: 759)—not in a nation of a billion-plus souls comprising one fifth of the world’s population. Moreover, such a concession to China, if that is what is actually being proposed, would surely be demanded by other totalitarian states, recreating the messy entanglements of Church and State that marked and sometimes marred much of Church history.

There is, of course, nothing intrinsically evil about granting State authorities a lesser or even a greater voice in the appointment of Catholic bishops, saving of course the Church’s ultimate right to make such appointments herself, but history has taught us that the greater the role played by secular power in ecclesiastical appointments, the greater the chances of abuse are.

Let’s pray these are not lessons that will need to be relearned.

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