22 October 2016

The Investiture Controversy in China


I have no stake or real interest in Catholic ecclesiology or geopolitics but this move by Francis should rightly be decried as a sell-out. In seeking peace for Roman Catholics in China he has all but capitulated to Beijing's demands. This will not earn him many friends among Catholics in China and certainly not among them in the United States.

Undoubtedly he's taking the long view and hoping to establish a good basis for reconciliation and dialogue that he hopes will result in Beijing's relaxing of restrictions. Once trust is established, then perhaps Rome will be able to exercise its normal functional authority within the Chinese Catholic hierarchy.

But Francis is wrong. First, he's acquiesced to a principle, that the state has the right to not only interfere but directly involve itself in the polity of the Church. This sets a very bad precedent and it could affect other Christian denominations in the country. Roman congregations will be potentially favoured and this will become a temptation and stumbling-block for the others. It will give Beijing leverage when negotiating with others.

At this point Francis has not only betrayed the principles of the Papacy but a basic Christian principle as well. In the Investiture Controversy of the 21st Century, the emperor isn't coming to Canossa, instead the Pope is going to the Forbidden City.

The Roman Catholic organisation has fought this battle many times over the centuries. Canossa refers to an infamous event in the 11th century when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV did penance at the gates of Canossa, an Italian castle where Pope Gregory VII was staying. The battle between them was over Investiture, the power of the state to invest or appoint bishops within their jurisdiction. Gregory VII won that round but the battle was hardly over.

While Bishops are not part of a Chinese feudal system, one of the driving issues of Medieval Europe's Investiture Controversy, the principle in the 21st century is more or less the same.

Gregory VII (Hildebrand) is rolling over in his grave.

Beijing views Roman Catholic bishoprics as having a political meaning and connection. Therefore they want a say in the process and just who is appointed. They have ordained their own selections and imprisoned the bishops they reject.

But Francis is also mistaken because Beijing knows all too well that Rome has a long history of political intrigue, subversion and collaboration with western powers and in particular the United States. Rome worked with the Americans to subvert European politics during the Cold War. They collaborated with the American Right on Latin American policy, backing dictators and funneling money to paramilitaries. They also played in key role in backing Solidarity in Poland. We could also say more about the Vatican's history with the Mafia, international finance, money laundering, drugs and many other scandals.

Beijing knows all this and they will never allow Rome to have free reign in their country. Francis is deceiving himself if he thinks such compromises will lead to Beijing granting the Chinese Roman Catholic Church complete autonomy.

Francis wants to visit China and may get his wish. Such a visit while not as geopolitically important as Nixon's trip in 1972 would nevertheless be a very noteworthy event that cannot be overstated. John Paul II's first visit to Poland in 1979 helped galvanise Polish society and played a part in the formation of Solidarity. John Paul II being Polish gave the trip a little more meaning than would a Francis visit to China. Nevertheless you can be sure Beijing will be thinking about Poland in 1979 as they weigh whether or not to allow Francis in.


  1. Of course, this reveals the dark-side of Rome when it comes to relating to other Christians. At the end of the day, despite happy-go-lucky ecumenism, Rome still wants so-called heretics to be brought into the fold. If the Chinese government inadvertently does it, then Rome doesn't have to get her hands dirty. Theologically, I have a lot of respect for the Communio people like JPII and BXVI, and politically, I've appreciated Francis' reorganization of Vatican relations away from the US orbit (though I'm sure a lot of Vatican people are still Cold-Warriors). But at the end of the day, commitment to the so-called court of St. Peter brings about a cloak-and-dagger Machiavellian intrigue to ecclesiological reunion.

    Rome is the mother of all sorts of strange things.

  2. It certainly is. Have you ever been there, to Rome itself?

    It is fascinating. There are times and places in which you can almost feel the intrigue. It's a city of secrets, strange people and funny goings on. And a good deal of it seems to emanate from the Vatican.

    For several years I think my kids were confused as to why I would want to read books about 19th and 20th century Roman Catholicism. There are aspects of it that don't interest me but many that do. It's a fascinating organisation... largely evil but nevertheless intriguing.

    1. Yeah, I love the city, and I understand the feeling of spookiness to it. I recall reading a book with an over-the-top Protestant assessment of Rome, calling Counter-Reformation Rome a totalitarian state, with the aestheticization of power. While that's pretty absurd, generally speaking, it certain has some truth to it. When I stood in John Lateran, the chill up my spine and soul crushing weight was enough to send me out of there in agony. Different sectors of the Roman Catholic world has produced much good, but the Vatican, its twisted heart, is not part of that.


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