On September 22, the Holy See announced it had reached a “provisional agreement” with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops. This deal may undermine Chinese Catholics, many of whom may secularize or go Pentecostal. Or the deal may subtly undermine the Communist Party’s authority by recognizing some papal authority.

The Chinese side has said nothing, and indeed prior to the announcement some of the official media had denied there even was a Vatican delegation in Beijing. The announcement gave no details about the content of the agreement, but it was the (at least provisional) culmination of an extended series of frustrating negotiations over the relative influence of the Pope and the ruling Communist Party of China over Chinese Catholics.

The Communist Party is, of course, atheist and disdainful of any religious practice. Chinese citizens are accorded freedom of worship, but the authorities harshly repress anything they consider to be subversive “under the cloak of religion.” The authorities define what they consider valid religions (excluding much of Chinese folk practice as mere “superstition”), and require that all religious bodies group themselves into official organizations accepting the “leadership” of the party.

After what the authorities call “liberation” in 1949, the state required religions to cut their ties to foreign organizations. Both Protestants and Catholics were forced to sever connections with outside mission boards or congregations. The pope was not only a foreigner but also a foreign prince, and Chinese Catholics were told to break organizational ties with the Holy See. Catholic doctrine requires that the pope designate bishops, but the Chinese rule was that local congregations “elected” bishops—in reality, Communist functionaries appointed them.

The papal nuncio, the Holy See’s diplomatic representative, along with Chinese laypeople and clergy resisted party attempts to control Church activity and indoctrinate Catholic children. The nuncio was expelled in 1951, and eventually the nunciature was moved to Taipei—which remains the locus of the Vatican’s official diplomatic office in “China.” Chinese Catholics suffered intimidation, imprisonment, and “thought reform.” In 1957 the regime was able to put together a “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association” (oversimply, but not inaccurately, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Communist Party), charged with administering Church affairs and designating bishops. The authorities found some priests willing to become ordained bishops and some bishops willing to ordain them. The pope condemned these actions, and those participating in the ceremonies by canon law had excommunicated themselves (“latae sententiae”) as an automatic consequence of the action, but Pope Pius XII (1939–­58) did not announce any personal anathemas. Pope John XXIII (1958–63) worried that the Church in China had become schismatic, but then decided that it had not. The official position is that the unauthorized ordinations are “valid” but illicit (and, of course, gravely sinful).

Most Chinese Catholics tried to keep as much distance as they could from the Patriotic Association. Those whose lack of cooperation was too evident faced harassment, imprisonment, and even execution. During the Cultural Revolution (conventionally, 1966–76), the state brutally suppressed all religious activity, official or unofficial, Christian or otherwise.

A general religious revival followed the death of Chairman Mao and the relaxation of political pressures on society. Two distinct communities emerged among Chinese Catholics—an “official” community under the Patriotic Association and an unofficial community (popularly dubbed, in China and abroad, the “underground,” although this should not be taken to imply secrecy; in most places most of the time it operates openly). Factional divisions remain, as do old resentments and disagreements over the proper mixture of expediency and principle, but over the years differences in doctrine or practice have disappeared. The official Church has come back into line with the universal Church (including the post-1949 innovations—the dogma of the Assumption, the post-Vatican II Mass, etc.) and tacitly recognizes the supreme authority of the pope. By the time of the agreement, all but seven of the “Patriotic” bishops had (privately) expressed repentance and sought and received the papal mandate. And the normal practice, breached only when the authorities felt a need to show who was boss, became that new “Patriotic” bishops would also (privately) seek and be given papal approval prior to their ordination.

In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI (2005–13), in an open letter to Chinese Catholics, reiterated that there was only one Catholic Church in China (i.e., there was no schism), urging the faithful to respect the “civil authorities,” obey them within their legitimate sphere of competence, and be good citizens of China (all of which they had been doing anyway). He also reaffirmed papal authority over the Church and the illegitimacy of the role assigned to the Patriotic Association. He urged both communities to put aside their differences and reunite, expressing a desire to discuss with the civil authorities an accommodation that would fit the interests of both sides.

The Church and party seemed on the verge of an agreement by 2010, but things fell apart. Benedict (according to rumor, anyway) thought that his delegates were conceding too much and that they desired an agreement for the sake of an agreement. On the Chinese side, the rupture coincided with renewed persecution of religion, especially Christianity. The authorities’ main concern, probably, was the rapid expansion of Pentecostal Protestantism, mostly outside the Protestants’ own version of the Patriotic Association, but Catholics felt the pressure as well. After Xi Jinping took power in 2012, the repression intensified, and Xi called for the “Sinification” of religion. This process did not mean there would be a search for compatibilities between Chinese customs and thought and Catholic teaching (as the early Jesuit missionaries had done). Instead, the party would control religious practice and possibly even doctrine. In the meantime, authorities in different localities bulldozed churches, eradicated any public signs of Christianity, pressured households to display portraits of Chairman Xi rather than Jesus, and enforced rules that forbade children from receiving religious instruction or even attending religious ceremonies.

On the other hand, since the beginning of his reign Pope Francis has wanted to resume the search for accommodation, which was also the desire as well of his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who had conducted the failed 2010 negotiations. Given the ongoing intense persecutions, it could be argued that the agreement now is poorly timed—but the same considerations might be construed as making it extremely timely, staunching the wound before it gets worse.

There are very few details on the content of the agreement. Early reports have the party suggesting a candidate for a see, with the pope then allowed a veto. It might be expected that the authorities will show a strong bias toward men who are pliable, opportunistic, and easily intimidated. Also, the pope has legitimized and lifted the excommunications against the remaining illicit bishops, even forcing an underground bishop to resign his see to become an auxiliary under the pardoned renegade. The seven have also supposedly expressed contrition, although as yet there has been no public capitulation.

Chinese Catholics themselves have apparently been left out of the bargaining process, with the higher-ranking Chinese clergy marginalized or excluded from influence over the negotiations. The Chinese cleric most publicly amenable to an arrangement, Cardinal John Tong, retired bishop of Hong Kong, welcomed the possibility of an agreement that seemed imminent in 2017. But he also said there must be conditions: the authorities should recognize the position of the underground bishops; the illicit bishops should publicly acknowledge their past disobedience; the Patriotic Association should redefine itself as a public service agency. None of these have happened yet, and the second two are probably nonstarters.

It is, of course, hard to know what the Chinese faithful think, but then they were not the ones who had been anxious to get an accommodation. Most of the underground Church cannot help but feel sold out—loyalty up has not been reciprocated by loyalty down (but, then, the Vatican has not treated the underground very well since at least 1980). And even the ordinary clergy and laity in the official Church do not relish being under the thumb of “civil authorities” and would wish the Vatican had taken a firmer stance.

The deal reached is probably similar to the one Parolin worked out in 2010 and Benedict rejected. No one on either the Chinese or Vatican side is really happy with it. The Chinese Foreign Ministry was supposedly pushing for a deal, not so much from a concern for civil liberty but because it would disaccommodate Taiwan. The Patriotic Association, or more relevantly its handlers in the party, is unhappy because the deal potentially diminishes its influence. For the Vatican, the attitude is that this deal was all that could be done under the circumstances. The Holy Father says it is a beginning, an opening for “dialogue.” The relevant Chinese expression here is “bargaining with the tiger for his hide.” The “provisional” nature of the agreement means that, should things not work out, there can be changes. But the Chinese authorities do not give back concessions they have already won, but rather press the other side to make more.

The question is whether anything at all should have been done. At its best, the arrangement seems to be an institutionalization of the status quo—tolerable but not great. But should that be institutionalized? The most persuasive practical rationale for a deal at this time is that a new set of regulations on religion promulgated this year, if taken literally, would result in the annihilation of all non-official religious activity. Chinese Christians have ridden out this kind of thing before, and many would prefer to do so again. But it’s not a choice outsiders should make for them. The danger of compliance is that the Church will lose all its value-added, being perceived as simply a tool of the Communist Party. Over the longer run, most Catholics might simply fade into the general secular, materialistic background. The more committed may find stronger spiritual meat in the growing Pentecostal Protestant sects. The Church will no longer have any lever for institutional power—and that will suit the party just fine.

But maybe it’s better to end on a positive note. There is probably less to the agreement than meets the eye—and not much meets the eye. There is historical precedent for allowing secular authorities, including not a few very unsavory ones, some role in episcopal appointments. On a deeper level, the role allotted the pope is a breach in the heretofore absolute principle that the party exercises monolithic leadership over everything in society, government, and culture. The concessions to the Catholic Church, such as they are, may generate more active demands from other social groups, creating pressures for a more pluralistic civil society and a less dictatorial political system. So if the agreement poses a danger to the Church, there is also a danger to the Chinese regime.

Peter Moody is an emeritus faculty at Notre Dame’s Department of Political Science who specializes in Chinese politics and is author of Conservative Thought in Contemporary China.

Photo Credit: Catholic Church in Old Dali, Yunnan, China. By Jaime Jover, via Flickr.