Ever since President Nixon famously “opened” China to the West, the country’s rise as an economic and political superpower has been a thorny nettle to grasp. The conventional wisdom has been that, while there are grave and pervasive issues in China relating to political freedom and human rights, these will be gradually eroded by a developing economy and growing middle class -  a process best hastened by open trade and engagement with Western nations.

The hope of many policy makers, be it realistic or fanciful, is that China will slowly, eventually, change from within. But as leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement can attest, many of them fresh from jail, if the change is coming, it isn’t yet in view.

Indeed, as President Xi relaxes into his new role of President-for-Life, things appear to be moving backwards, rather than forwards. Political and religious arrests, forced sterilizations, human organ trafficking - these are not the stuff of Orwellian nightmares, but part of any serious discussion of the situation in China. Just this week President Xi rolled out the red carpet for the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un; a man reported to have executed musicians with anti-aircraft guns, and abducted schoolgirls for sex slaves.

In the Machiavellian world of realpolitik, in which China’s status as an economic and military superpower make it too big to be ignored, governments may find that the unpalatable task of doing business with China is unavoidable. But it need not be so for the Church. The Church has no trade deficit with China, no sovereign territory to defend in the South China Sea, no national debt held by the Chinese government. The Holy See, through its status as a sovereign entity in international law, is in a unique position - it has the diplomatic clout to make its voice heard, without the entanglements of a major nation state. With this in mind, what are Catholics to make of the deal being brokered between China and the Vatican?

Since the New Year, there have been numerous reports of a concordat in the making between the Chinese government and the Holy See. The apparent substance of the deal is to hand the Chinese government considerable power over episcopal appointments in exchange for bringing the underground Church above ground, ending the split with the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.  Public criticism has been fierce from respected figures like Cardinal Zen, a hero of the Chinese underground Church, who called the proposed deal an “act of suicide” by the Church and a “shameless surrender.”

In response, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, has said “sacrifices” need to be made, and that the plan is not “a political exchange, but falls within the evangelical perspective of a greater good, the good of the Church of Christ.” Parolin’s hope is that “we won’t have to speak of ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ bishops, ‘clandestine’ and ‘official’ bishops in the church in China, but about meeting among brothers and sisters, learning the language of collaboration and communion again.”

If the Vatican’s strategic aim is that a unified Church in China will provide an opportunity for a more public and influential Catholic voice in Chinese society, the signs are not encouraging. As CNA has reported recently, news of President Xi’s lifetime term came with a reordering of government business, with one change being the placement of the state-approved Church under the direct supervision of the explicitly atheist Chinese Communist Party. Yesterday, Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin, of the underground Church in China, was detained by state authorities. He was apparently taken in by the police for refusing to concelebrate Mass with an illicitly consecrated, state-backed bishop. He has since been released, but forbidden from celebrating the Chrism Mass.

As one of the underground bishops apparently earmarked by the Vatican to give way to a state-anointed replacement, the government’s treatment of Bishop Guo gives a foretaste of the sort of “government first, Catholic second” enforcement a united Church in China can expect. Indeed, the publicity around the Vatican’s pressure upon Bishop Guo to step aside in hopes of a future deal may have served to embolden Chinese authorities to act. The de facto delegitimization of faithful bishops in China by the Vatican’s political maneuvering may have practical, as well as spiritual, consequences for the faithful in China.

Also today, reports have emerged that the Vatican-China deal may have broader diplomatic implications. It has been suggested that any deal on bishops may come with pressure on the Vatican to break off diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, the democratic nation better known as Taiwan. The Chinese government insist that Taiwan is a rebel province, and place heavy pressure on countries not recognize the island as a sovereign state. The Holy See has recognized the Republic of China since 1942, and remains among the most prominent sovereign entities to do so.

A Vatican rethink on Taiwan may well be expected - doing business with China often comes with the condition of adopting the “One China Policy,” and rejecting Taiwanese claims to sovereignty. If the Vatican could be persuaded to abandon its support, it would end of one of the Holy See’s most high-profile principled diplomatic stands of the modern era.

Of course, the actual text of any agreement has not been signed, or disclosed for public discussion. Until the actual details of any such deal are known, it is impossible to say with certitude what is good or bad about it. What can be said, indeed what seems obvious, is that there not yet a clear upside to the possible deal with Beijing.

For all the Vatican’s efforts to cement a deal with China, there is no clear prize at the end of the road. Every new report suggests that, by accepting Communist nomination of episcopal appointees, the Church will cede considerable practical authority over the Church in China. Worse, as the arrest of Bishop Guo and the threat to Vatican-Taiwan relations show, the moral authority of the Church is being materially sacrificed. Yet nothing appears to be on offer in return, beyond the nebulous hope that a unified Church, under Communisty party oversight, could open new possibilities - which seems unlikely, as long as police can arrest any bishop who is too Catholic for Beijing.  

Supporters of the deal say that it will diminish persecution of faithful Catholics in China. But Xi's call for the “Sinicization” of all religions in China might mean the opposite- that Beijing will pressure bishops to downplay some aspects of Church teaching, and that faithful clerics and laity could be hung out to dry. Those willing to toe Beijing's line might be safe, for now, but those who hold fast to faith might have little place to turn if they openly evangelize, speak out too boldly in favor of human rights, or refuse to contracept.

The Holy See exists, at the diplomatic level, to be an outspoken champion for human dignity and religious freedom. Its unique status is supposed to insulate it from the worldly concerns and pressures which tie the hands of governments. Yet in its dealings with China, the Vatican is risking the unique moral authority its effectiveness rests upon. Without that, the Church becomes just another NGO doing what it can - a witness to human limitations, not divine truth.

rnEd Condon is a canon lawyer working for tribunals in a number of dioceses. On Twitter he is @canonlawyered. The opinions expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Catholic News Agency or Angelus News.