A Holy See-China accord, which would lead to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing, would presumably allow the underground Church and the patriotic Church to unite and freely practice the faith. How free will that be? Reports that a rapprochement between the Holy See and the communist government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have grown more hopeful — or foreboding — in recent weeks. Since the PRC set up an official “patriotic Church” in the aftermath of Mao’s 1949 revolution, Catholics in China have been divided. There are those who belong to the patriotic Church regulated by the Chinese communist government and those who belong to the underground Church, which considers membership in the patriotic Church disloyal to Rome.

The sticking point is apparently the appointment of bishops. According to various reports, the Holy See may be willing to allow the Chinese government to propose candidates for vacant dioceses, from which the Church would then make a final selection.

The Chinese situation is a reminder that the appointment of bishops has a long history of entanglement with civil power. One of the great achievements of the First Vatican Council’s declaration of the universal jurisdiction of the supreme pontiff was — after centuries of varying practices — to remove the state from the appointment of bishops in principle. In practice, though, the Church exercised this liberty with some constraints. Indeed, 2016 marks the 60th anniversary of a compromise in Poland that sheds some light on the current Chinese situation.

After the postwar occupation of Poland by Stalin’s Soviet Union, the new primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, had to work out many questions about survival in an atheist regime.

“Thus, in 1950, the Church and the Polish government agreed on a set of ground rules for a tense coexistence,” wrote George Weigel in The End and the Beginning, the second volume of Witness to Hope, his biography of St. John Paul II. “The regime recognized the Church’s internal autonomy, its religious links to the papacy, its liturgical and ceremonial life (including public manifestations of faith, such as pilgrimages), its independent publications and its pastoral ministries in schools, hospitals and prisons. … The Church, for its part, recognized the communist regime as the legal government of Poland … committed itself to work for national reconstruction, ad pledged to avoid ‘activities hostile to the Polish People’s Republic.’ … [Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski] believed that the ground rules for an ongoing struggle had been set and that he had defined the ground he could successfully defend.”

Might this be a model for China today? Many in Rome then thought Wyszynski was too accommodating, but the Polish primate judged that he needed to avoid a total liquidation of the Church, as was happening in other Soviet satellites.

“According to the 1950 agreement Primate Wyszynski had hammered out, when a bishop died, the Polish Church (which meant, in practice, then-Archbishop Wyszynski) would consult with Rome and then propose a name to the government to fill the vacancy; the government could veto a candidate but could not impose its own substitute,” Weigel wrote.

The Polish compromise had roots in more than a millennium of various arrangements between Church and state. Often, the civil power had far-reaching rights over episcopal appointments. The Church, though, insisted — sometimes more in theory than in practice — that it alone had the authority to appoint bishops, even if it decided to share that authority with the state.

One of the great Church-state controversies in history was precisely over the “investiture” of bishops in the 11th century, with Pope Gregory VII prevailing over King Henry on the precise question of who had the authority to appoint bishops. Even so, Gregory’s victory for the Church’s liberty was honored more in principle than in practice — he died in exile. Likewise, in 1950s’ Poland, the communists attempted to override their agreement with Cardinal Wyszynski.

“In May 1953, the regime ordered the implementation of a law by which it, not the Church, would appoint and remove pastors, vicars and bishops. The Church would become, de facto, a subsidiary of the Polish state,” noted Weigel. What the Polish regime did not take into account was that, in Stefan Wyszynski, they were dealing with one of the greatest Churchmen of the 20th century.

“Wyszynski threw down the gauntlet in a historic sermon at Warsaw’s St. John’s Cathedral: ‘We teach that it is proper to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s. But when Caesar sits himself upon the altar, we respond curtly: He may not,’” Weigel wrote.

In response, the communists declared war on the Polish Church under Cardinal Wyszynski’s leadership. It charged the bishops with treason; and on the night of Sept. 25-26, 1953, Cardinal Wyszynski was arrested and began three years of internment, first in a monastery and later in a convent. By the end of 1953, eight bishops and 900 priests were in prison for the faith. Archbishop Eugeniusz Baziak of Krakow — who would be succeeded in 1964 by Karol Wojtyla — was also placed under house arrest from 1953 to 1956.

In 1956 the communists, fearing instability, sought to pacify the people by moderating their persecution of the Church. Cardinal Wyszynski insisted upon the restoration of the 1950 agreement on the appointment of bishops — he would choose and the communists would get a veto. It was that process that led to the appointment of Bishop Wojtyla as archbishop of Krakow. In one of the great “blunders” of history, the Polish communists decided they would veto all of Cardinal Wyszynski’s proposals for Krakow — there were a half dozen — until they got Bishop Wojtyla, whom they misjudged more easily manipulated than Wyszynski.

From a distance of 60 years, what lessons are there in the experience of the Church in Poland that are relevant to the Chinese situation? There are several.

First, in Poland, the Church was strong and united after World War II, in a position to demand concessions of the regime. In China, the Church has been divided for decades and the underground Church constrained in its leadership. What the Church in Poland was able to insist upon for itself the Church in China depends upon the Holy See to do.

Second, there was no doubt that Cardinal Wyszynski — with varying degrees of support and criticism from Rome — was the leader in Poland. In China, the PRC’s policy of divide and conquer has been effective. China’s Catholic Church has no indisputable leader. Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired bishop of Hong Kong, has immense moral authority and has been sounding the alarm about what he fears the Holy See might agree to with China. Yet, during his retirement years, the voice of Cardinal Zen is less influential than it once was.

Third, is there a significant difference between Cardinal Wyszynski’s model of the Church choosing a candidate subject to a state veto and the apparent Chinese model of the Church selecting from nominees of the state? In one sense, no, because the bishop will always have been approved by the Holy See, preserving its prerogative. In another sense, yes, because it is the state who selects, and it is not clear that the Church could veto. In the Chinese case, the framework for the selection of bishops is set by the state — an officially atheist state.

Fourth, Cardinal Wyszynski knew well that communists do not keep their promises — least of all regarding human rights and religious liberty. Yet he judged the Church in Poland strong enough to insist upon what had been agreed to. He was vindicated, in that he was able to force the regime to honor the agreements of 1950, even after they attempted to weaken him with three years of internment. The Church in China simply does not have that strength after nearly 70 years of persecution and decapitated leadership.

Fifth and finally, the Chinese regime appears to be ratcheting up religious persecution, even as the Holy See enters more deeply into negotiations. Troubling news is emerging from China, not least of which is a law, which took effect Nov. 1, that encourages people to report to the authorities parents who might be clandestinely providing religious education to their own children. What the Holy See might regard as a diplomatic breakthrough may well be considered by Beijing a further step in its reduction of religious liberty.

The lessons of 1956 are still relevant in 2016, but what worked 60 years ago in Poland might not be possible, or wise, in today’s China.

Father Raymond J. de Souza

is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.