According to canon law, the pope freely appoints bishops. Nevertheless, the participation of the local Church and its members is expected to the extent that the apostolic nuncio inquires about the opinions of others of the secular and religious clergy and the laity. Naturally, the pope is expected to have the final word.
In the case of the Chinese agreement, it is unclear what the pope has granted and how the process is applied in practice. The deal, like the negotiation, has remained secret, and reports have raised significant concerns.
In the recent history of the Church, another agreement was managed in total secrecy, provided for compromises, and — above all — had similar effects. An analysis of that agreement can help to understand the approach of the Holy See today. This precedent is the so-called “simple understanding” between Hungary and the Holy See in 1964.
Negotiations with Hungary in the 1960s
The information on this agreement is laid out in an essay by Professor András Fejérdy titled “The simple understanding of 1964 between the Holy See and Hungary” and published in the “History of the Hungarian Church.”
At the time, the essay explains, Hungary was a country firmly behind the Iron Curtain and under Soviet influence, and Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, was already a refugee in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest after the failed popular insurrection of 1956. During the intervening years, there was very little communication between Rome and the churches beyond Cortina.
To bring about an understanding between Hungary and the Holy See, three meetings were held between Monsignor Casaroli, then undersecretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs (a sort of “deputy foreign minister”), and the Hungarian authorities.
In Casaroli’s diaries, he never expressed confidence at the prospect of a positive result. When referring to the channels of dialogue that he opened with the countries of the Soviet bloc, Casaroli said it was not a question of establishing a modus vivendi (a way of living) but a modus non-moriendi, literally a way of not dying.
The Holy See sought an agreement because, after 1945, the Holy See had considered the simple agreement between the Holy See and Hungary stipulated in 1927 expired. Since the Holy See did not respect the state’s claim to give prior consent, attempts by the Holy See to provide for vacant bishops had failed since the 1950s.
In December 1962, the Holy See sent a verbal note (a diplomatic document) proposing a practical compromise: the intention of appointment would be communicated first to the candidate himself, while the appointment would be made public only after the cardinal had obtained, personally or through the episcopal conference, the state consent.
In Budapest, however, the proposal was not well received. The Hungarian side knew the urgency for the Holy See to ensure the existence of the hierarchy and saw a chance to assert their interests. The Holy See accepted a solution that formally did not conflict with the canonical principle of free appointment by the pope but gave a decisive influence to the regime in choosing candidates.
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Another topic on the agenda was the request for an oath that the bishops should have given loyalty to the constitution of the Hungarian People’s Republic. The Holy See finally clarified that the oath of fidelity given by ecclesiastics was to be understood with the clause “sicut decet episcopum, vel sacerdotem” — as befits the bishops or the priest.
The same problem concerns the registration of bishops in the Patriotic Association in China. After the agreement, the bishops are not required to register, as the government would like. There is no obligation.
Fejérdy notes that, in any case, the oath question was secondary for the Holy See, while the appointment of bishops was a priority. The delegation of the Holy See left the discussion on oath open for tactical reasons. Yet these motives weakened, rather than strengthened, its position.
“The minutes of the negotiations,” Fejérdy writes, “testify that the failure of the Vatican’s attempts to obtain information from various sources was primarily due to the secrecy of the talks. In fact, the need to keep the existence and content of the meetings secret in a certain sense became a vicious circle for the Vatican.”
This is because “concerning the communist regimes, the Holy See preferred the instruments of secret diplomacy because from the very beginning it was aware that with the negotiations it would only be able to obtain partial results. It was, therefore, feared that the publicity of the negotiations, and their repercussions in the press, could start a controversy that could threaten the same partial results.”