Vol I No. 7
Anglican Communion

Papal toe kissing and the Chinese kowtow...

by sinetortus

(European emissaries kowtow before the Chinese Emperor c. 1800)


Has Pope Francis too rashly kissed

the proffered toe of President Xi Jinping ?


When it comes to extravagant postural gestures from those seeking to treat with them, the Papacy and the Imperial Chinese Court have long histories replete with a perhaps surprising degree of symmetry.

Chinese Emperors were honoured with the kowtow (kau tauin Cantonese or koutouin Mandarin) which was a form of prostration in which the honoring party knelt and touched his head to the ground. This practice is said to have gone back to the 2nd  century BC.

Popes instead used to invite Kings and lesser subjects to kiss their proffered toe. This gesture was recorded as far back as the Ordo Romanus of the seventh century, while even before that  the Liber Pontificalis apparently attests that the Emperor Justin paid this mark of respect to Pope John I (523-26) in the sixth century

Such history informs the curious mental image of a Papal kowtow by Pope Francis to Xi Jinping, the increasingly imperial President of China. This image is now invited by those dismayed at the terms of a formal,  if still somewhat secret, agreement that was signed between the Vatican and the Chinese state on the 22ndof September.  It is thought that this may serve as a prelude to the establishment of full diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican and possibly even a Papal visit.

Central to the debate is that the agreement seems to have involved a concession resisted by previous pontiffs, namely the recognition by the Pope of bishops previously chosen independently by the Chinese State and, further, the ceding in perpetuity of a formal role henceforth to the Chinese Government in the appointment of all future Roman Catholic bishops in China (with the understanding being that the Pope will appoint from a list of names drawn up by Beijing).

The bishops consecrated irregularly by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (first set up by Beijing independent of the Vatican in 1957) without a Pontifical Mandate include: Bishop Joseph Guo Jincai of Chengde diocese, Joseph Huang Bingzhang of Shantou diocese, Paul Lei Shiyin of Leshan diocese, Joseph Liu Xinhong of Anhui diocese, Joseph Ma Yinglin of Kunming diocese, Joseph Yue Fusheng of Heilongjiang diocese and Vincent Zhan Silu of Mindong diocese.

It is understood that these bishops, as part of the current process, wrote letters of repentance stating their desire to rebuild communion with the Pope. He then, after considering each of their cases, issued and signed decrees of reconciliation,  so that these Chinese government appointed bishops were once again admitted to full ecclesiastical communion. (The late bishop, Anthony Tu Shihua, had expressed the desire to be reconciled with the Apostolic See before his death on January 4, 2017.)

There now remain vacancies to fill in 12 dioceses and the Pope has established a new diocese in Chengde, Hebei province northeast of Beijing and appointed as bishop of the new diocese Guo Jincai, who is also deputy secretary general of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. There are 25,000 faithful, seven priests and about 10 nuns in the Chengde diocese.

There seems  to be underway thus, an implied and actual repudiation of those successive underground bishops who remained loyal to the Vatican, through much repression, over the many decades since the Communists took power in 1949. Such clandestine bishops as remain, will it seems, now be expected to step aside to make way for the State approved ones, whom alone the Vatican will now recognise.

There are thought to be about thirty underground bishops at present and earlier this year the Vatican asked from among these canonically legitimate bishops (unrecognized by the State) Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou diocese and Joseph Guo Xijin of Mindong diocese to step down and make room for Huang (Joseph Huang Bingzhang of Shantou diocese) and Zhan (Vincent Zhan Silu of Mindong diocese), who were chosen by the state but now reconciled with the Pope.

This agreement, together with its unfolding ramifications, have provoked much concern among Roman Catholic commentators since it prompts a number of difficult questions.

While there may be some formal diplomatic advantages in having the Chinese government recognise the Vatican state officially, what signal does the new agreement send to those willing hitherto to endure great hardships and to defy the Chinese state in order to remain loyal Roman Catholics upholding the autonomy of that Church?

Further, as George Weigel and others have asked more technically, how is this action compatible with the principles set out by the Second Vatican Council and later enshrined in the current Canon law of the church? That Council declared that “In order to safeguard the liberty of the Church and more effectively to promote the good of the faithful, it is the desire of the sacred Council that for the future no rights or privileges be conceded to the civil authorities in regard to the election, nomination, or presentation to bishoprics.” (Christus Dominus, “On the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church.”)  While the 1983 Code of Canon Law, states that,  “for the future, no rights or privileges of election, appointment, presentation, or designation of Bishops are conceded to civil authorities.” (Canon 377.5).



Against these rather large points, it can be argued that the Pope, by virtue of the status granted his office since the late 19thcentury, can exempt himself from Canon law. While, in addition, the wider evidence of history is replete with complexity in this terrain, with numerous precedents of Papal concessions regarding a power which in any case only accrued by stages to the Papacy over later centuries. Indeed, a closely parallel right to select bishops was ceded by the Vatican as recently as 1953 in its Concordat with Spain and General Franco.   It is also important to note the distinction between the freedom of the church in a given place, of which electing its own bishops might be an element, and the reservation of the capacity to select and fill episcopal vacancies to the Papacy which is a freedom for the Papacy.

Bishops of Rome only sought a supervisory role over the appointment of bishops in the West over time and only formally declared it in concordats largely since 1887, but even since then, there have been notable exceptions made such as that of 1953 with Spain.  In the earliest periods of church history they had no such role beyond Italy and their metropolitical domain.

The election of bishops, was in the earliest times seen as the internal concern of the given Christian community, under the leadership of the local bishops of the region. Typically, upon the death of a bishop a general assembly of the faithful in the city of the newly-vacant see would be convened in the presence of the other bishops of the same province (the “comprovincial” bishops), usually with the relevant metropolitan presiding. A choice might be made by the clergy and people (a clero et populo)  and submitted to the college of bishops,  who were ultimately responsible for decision in respect of the nominee. On giving their approval, they would proceed to consecrate and install their new colleague.  Though, numerous sources do attest to variations. Sometimes bishops alone made the choice, which then received the approval of the community by some form of vote or simply by acclamation. But it does seem that the three constituencies of clergy, people, and episcopate were all held to be essential.  In fact, Pope CelestineI, in a letter of 428, to the bishops of the provinces of Vienne  and Narbonne, makes it explicitly clear that the consent of those in the diocese was seen as essential:  “Let no one be given as bishop to an unwilling flock. The consent and petitions of the clergy, common people and patricians are required.” Again, in the terse dictum “Qui praefuturus est omnibus, ab omnibus eligatur,” much cited subsequently and as late as the Gregorian Reform in the eleventh century, Pope Leo I affirmed the same and subsequently traditional principle. Writing to the bishops of the province of Vienna in 445, he said firmly,  “Let there be secured the approval of the clergy, the testimony of leading citizens and the consent of the people and patricians.  Let him who is to be placed over all be chosen by all.”

Subsequent history, however, showed a marked tendency for this state of affairs to erode in the face of assault from two directions. On the one hand,  the Papacy sought to reserve the ultimate choice of bishops to itself, while on the other, the ambitions of states and Kings in particular were asserted, with the one common effect being to undermine the process of local election.  The Merovingians in France were notable pioneers in this regard, with the Council of Orleans of 549 in Canon 10, making the King’s consent an additional requirement in the election of a bishop. Yet,  by the 11th century, there was a widespread move for reform across Europe and especially against ‘lay investiture’  anulo et baculo (by ring and staff, the symbols of spiritual office)

The Council of Reims in 1049, presided over by the newly elected German pope, Leo IX declared bluntly that  “No one is to be advanced to rule in the Church without election by the clergy and people”, and by the time of Worms in 1122,  Henry V had repudiated all claims to lay investiture – save for those (fairly numerous) bishops who were temporal lords as well.

This twelfth Century settlement was soon challenged however, with cathedral chapters providing a particular opening for monarchs, since it was these bodies who had to obtain from the king the licentia eligendi, and then set the day and time as well as convoke the formal electors, thus they could in practice proceed without the other constituencies in a way that began on account of special circumstances but then later came to be a regular abuse. (Indeed a lingering instance is provided in the Church of England today, when Cathedral Chapters will still ceremonially convene to “elect” a bishop who has in fact already been chosen quite separately.) On the other hand again,  by the thirteenth century, the Papacy increasingly sought to take over the supervisory and confirmatory role from local metropolitans or simply asserted its authority to fill by announcement vacant sees, with the Avignonese Popes asserting the right of appointment to all the bishoprics in Christendom.

Yet the reality was that Kings and national authorities widely encroached upon this idea up until very recent times, with Papal acquiescence.

Famously,  it was the “Gallican Liberties” asserted by the French that led the way and culminated  in the suppression of all papal reservation of benefices and provision for election to sees by cathedral Chapters. The king was then called upon to ratify the decisions made and to enforce them as the law of the land. Charles VII did this on July 7th, 1438  and the document subsequently known as the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges.   However, as Fenelon later observed,in practice,  “Les liberties gallicanes sont les servitudes du roi” and this process culminated, under Francis I,  with the 1516 Concordat of Bologna, following his victory at Marignano. In this he entirely dispensed with the role of Cathedral chapters and established the right to nominate all bishops directly,  subject only to the requirements that any candidate selected be “a man with at least a licentiate in theology or canon law, or comparable university education, at least twenty-seven years of age, and otherwise suitable for episcopal office” though the Pope still issued the bull of canonical institution.

This arrangement remained in place right up to 1789,  with however, the mere result as one analyst later put it that: “of the over one hundred-thirty bishops in France on the eve of the Revolution, only a dozen were completely unworthy men; a few were exemplary pastors, the rest were “neither scandalous nor edifying”  (Adrien Dansette, 1961, I, 12) Which last is a description that it might be tempting to apply to more modern times and bishops and is itself captured in a more modern idiom by Prudence Dailey who identifies such adornments of the modern ecclesia as the “Clerical blob” (or goutte clerical peut-être?).

It is of further interest that , after the devastation visited upon the French church during the Revolution, the old ways resumed– albeit it through the ingenious stratagem of a clause inserted by Napoleon into the Concordat of 1801 with Pope Pius VII (which endured till 1905) which  asserted that the Catholic religion would be thenceforth be practiced in conformity with such police regulations as  the government should judge to be necessary for public tranquility.  Under this cover and the consequent “Organic Articles” as the regulations came to be known,  Napoleon asserted all the old rights to episcopal nomination previously exercised by the monarchy, save that the state now also paid the bishops, of whom by the end of Napoleon’s time, only ten were drawn from the Nobility.

It was only by the time of the last concordat of the nineteenth century, with Colombia in 1887, that the compact accorded to the Holy See exclusively the right to name the heads of dioceses, as  “the Holy See’s own special right” and thereby created a model for what the historian de la Briére called subsequently the  “concordatory common law”: affirming “promotion to episcopal sees by the spiritual power alone, but with consultation with the temporal power as to possible obstacles of a political nature” (Yves de la Brière, S.J. p. 385)




In the light of such history,  the current highly “pragmatic” action of Pope Francis,  in entering into the new accord with China, on terms that seem both to “sell out” those Catholics and bishops there who have paid dearly to resist submission to the Communist state, and furthermore, cedes to the Chinese government future control of the Catholic episcopate, looks less surprising than it might at first have seemed.   As a matter of history there has been a fascinating evolution in which the supervision, or more specifically, the locus of control over the choice of bishops has moved. It began as a relatively local matter in which the fundamental priority of the local people and clergy was emphasized. Only later did the Papacy seek to claim, over and above the regional oversight of a metropolitan, not just oversight but the entire  right of selection. (An historical transition which makes this evidently at most to do with the bene esse rather than the esse of the Papal office.) Yet, the most curious paradox is that when finally gained and then  proclaimed formally in concordats (which were a relatively late phenomenon) the Papacy,  treated this capacity to choose bishops as something negotiable, a bargaining chip as it were,  and  thus something possible to give  away when deemed  expedient within the context of a wider negotiation.

In the light of all this background, it can be seen very clearly how Papal pragmatism runs deep. History has thus left ample  precedent  for the present concessions to the Chinese government. What has  changed is the context, since now  such actions can no longer be kept from the gaze of a global public and the faithful, and is in consequence potentially far more damaging or at least corrosive of the image of the Papacy as a result. Such pragmatic maneuvering must risk seeming a touch  scandalous at the least and more gravely risks undermining the notion of the papacy as a guardian of absolutes.

But then again,  the probability of success for such realpolitik is something to which history can speak too, and there are many cases to consider.

In 1929 Lateran Accords (which also created an independent Vatican City as a State), Pope Pius XI made a concordat with Mussolini in the expectation that it would guarantee the Catholic Church’s freedom yet within only two years Catholic youth groups and other parts of the Church came under both physical and propaganda attack with the result that Pius XI denounced Mussolini and the ‘pagan worship of the State’ in his 1931 encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno,

In 1933, the Vatican negotiated the Reich Concordat once, again with the objective of protecting the Catholic Church and that fared no better,  with the 1937 condemnation in the encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge denouncing Hitler’s regime ultimately followed.

After the War, there came a new round of diplomatic drafting, with the Ostpolitik  of the 1960s and 1970s. Pope Paul VI and his Secretary of State, Cardinal Casaroli, negotiated a series of agreements with the Communist governments of Eastern Europe sometimes even going around  local leaders who had remained loyal to the Vatican, like Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński of Poland, in order to do so.

Yet the outcomes were not good. The hierarchy in several cases became too close to the Communist regimes (e.g. Hungary, Czechoslovakia) and those who struggled to remain loyal to the Vatican, under often severe repression, felt betrayed. Meanwhile the Communist regimes via the KGB, the Polish SB, the East German Stasi, struggled mightily to insert their loyalists and agents into the Vatican itself.

All this George Weigel charted in the second volume of his biography of Pope John-Paul II.

Weigel writing specifically on the current agreement (in his article “Did Pope Francis Just Make China Protestant?” in the National Review of September 24, 2018),  quotes  the “redoubtable Cardinal Joseph Zen”, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, from his new book, For Love of My People I Will Not Be Silent.  In that book the Cardinal argues that the Chinese Communist regime is not eternal, and that accordingly,  if today “you line up behind the regime, tomorrow our Church will not be welcome in the reconstruction of a new China.” That is a perspective on these negotiations and agreements that is highly compelling – but also very cautionary indeed.



See also :

Pierre Blet, S.J., « Le concordat de Bologne et la réforme tridentine, » Gregorianum,XLV (1964), 265-78.

Yves de la Brière, S.J., “Le droit concordataire dans la nouvelle Europe,” in the Recueil des Courts of the Academie de Droit Internationale, Paris: Librairie du Recueil,  Sirey, LXIII, 1938, re p. 385 above

W. Browne, “The Pactum Callixtinum: An Innovation in Papal Diplomacy”, The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Jul., 1922, pp. 180-190

Richard F. Costigan SJ., “State Appointment of Bishops” Journal of Church and State, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Winter 1966), pp. 82-96

Adrien Dansette, Religious History of Modem France, 2 vols.; New York, 1961

« Église et États, » in E. Delaruelle, E. R. Labande, and Paul Ourliac, L’Église au temps du Grande Schisme et de la crise conciliare,1378-1449 (Paris, 1962).

Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, (Directeur de l’Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l’Ecole Militaire (IRSEM), ministère des Armées) « Commentaire du Concordat de 1801 entre la France et le Saint-Siège » Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique, 102:1, 2007, p. 124-154.