The Pope has a problem. Thousands of Catholics in one of the world’s most powerful nations have been martyred by an atheistic government. Half of the Catholic population belongs to an underground Church. The other half is served by grubby bishops who do not recognise his authority. It appears that the Church is being ground into dust. And then the godless government offers the Vatican a deal. Should the Pope deal with the Devil?
Pope Francis and Communist China? Close, but no. It’s Pope Pius VII and Napoleonic France.
They say that history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. When Pope Francis was negotiating with the People’s Republic of China, he was treading a well-worn path. Under the 2018 agreement, the Communist government nominates bishops but the Holy See has a veto. Seven Chinese bishops who had been appointed by government without the Vatican’s approval, and had been subsequently excommunicated, were legitimised.
The agreement has been savagely criticised, notably by Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former archbishop of Hong Kong. “They’re [sending] the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal,” he said. “The consequences will be tragic and long lasting, not only for the church in China but for the whole church because it damages the credibility.”
And an American expert on religious freedom, Nina Shea, commented: “Given that the CCP is now energetically working to consolidate totalitarian control over civil society, this partnership comes at a very high price—for the Chinese Catholic Church and for the Vatican’s moral authority.”
However, critics of Pope Francis should place this deal – which the Chinese have already broken – in its historical context. In 1801 Pope Pius VII faced the same dilemma when he signed a concordat with Napoleon. If anything, the situation of the Church was even more dire.
When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, the Catholic Church became one of its main targets. Hundreds of priests were killed; nuns went to the guillotine; public worship was forbidden; monasteries were dissolved; churches were looted and destroyed. At the height of the persecution, in 1793 the goddess of Reason was enthroned in a blasphemous ceremony in Notre Dame Cathedral.
Only clergy who had sworn allegiance to the Republic were permitted to minister to Catholics. Half of the priests took the oath; many were forced to marry. The vast majority of bishops refused. Their places were taken by elected “constitutional bishops”. The Church was split between sworn priests who said Mass in public churches and underground priests who ministered to Catholic secretly. The government also redrew the ecclesiastical map, abolishing most dioceses and creating new ones corresponding to administrative divisions.
Napoleon came to power in November 1799. He was born a Catholic (both an uncle and a great-nephew were cardinals), but he was typical Enlightenment sceptic. “In France I govern people: I am Catholic.” was his notorious quip. “In Egypt where I dominated, I was a Muslim. If I were to rule the Holy Land and Jerusalem, I would rebuild the temple of Solomon to make the Jews happy.”
After the chaos of the Revolution Napoleon wanted to restore order and he realised that the support of the Church was necessary. Turning his back on atheism and persecution (to the disgust of many of his supporters) he began to negotiate with Pius VII. After six months of haggling, he signed a concordat with the Pope on 15 July 1801.
The terms of this agreement resemble the agreement that Pope Francis reached with the CCP. As the price for guaranteeing freedom of religion, Pius VII agreed to reconfigure the Church from 136 dioceses into 60. All of the bishops had to resign, both the constitutional bishops and those who had remained faithful to the Pope. The Pope would choose new bishops from amongst Napoleon’s nominees, ensuring that they would be politically reliable. It was a terrible deal, but Napoleon was holding all the cards. As a Chinese author has pointed out: “One of the consequences of the Concordat was that those who were illegal became legal; those who were legal stood aside.”
The Concordat brought a measure of peace to the Church, but Napoleon arrogantly continued to abuse his power. Soon afterwards, without seeking agreement from the Pope, he added “organic articles” to the treaty promulgating the Concordat. These were regulations which hamstrung the Church’s independence. For example, no Papal documents could be published without government approval.
The newly minted Emperor treated the Church as his plaything. He forced the Pope to attend his coronation in 1804. In 1806 he created the feast of St Napoleon, to be celebrated on August 15—which was both his birthday and one of the most important feasts of the Blessed Virgin. An Imperial Catechism told children that: “To honour and serve our Emperor is … to honour and to serve God Himself.”
The concordat did not stop a French army from invading the Papal States in 1809. It did not stop Pius VII from excommunicating Napoleon. It did not stop Napoleon from arresting the Pope and holding him in captivity in Paris for five years.
But … After his defeat at Waterloo, Emperor Napoleon died in 1821 in lonely exile in the South Atlantic. Pope Pius VII died peacefully in 1823 in Rome. His successor, Benedict XVI, declared him a “Servant of God” and opened his cause of canonisation.
What was the ultimate result of the Concordat of 1801?
Mixed. Napoleon treated the Pope and the Church with contempt. The Church was far from free. And faithful bishops paid a heavy price. But the Catholic faithful were allowed to breathe – they could pray in their churches and receive the sacraments. And after the collapse of Napoleon, despite increasingly militant secular governments, the Church flourished spiritually and intellectually in 19th century France.
The situation of the Catholic Church in China in 2023 is different from the Catholic Church in France in 1801. Most French were at least nominally Catholic; in China Catholics are a tiny minority. Napoleon had a certain esteem for Christianity; Xi Jinping is implacably hostile to all religions. But the Pope and his diplomats seem to be playing the long game, as they have since the days of the Roman emperors. The Church’s humiliating compromises with tyrants may be darkened by bullying and injustice, but as long as Catholics can breathe, it may be worthwhile dealing with the devil. In the long run, the Church usually wins.