Vatican Reach Provisional Deal to Operate Catholic Churches in China
The Vatican has reportedly reached a “provisional” deal with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops for the Catholic Church in China. For the agreement, dated to Sept. 22, Pope Francis will officially recognize the appointments of seven bishops who were chosen by the Chinese government without prior papal consent — a landmark development in the relations between the Holy See and People’s Republic of China.
While the details of the agreement have not been publicly released by either the Vatican or Beijing, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a brief statement confirming a “temporary agreement.” Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli — a lead negotiator for the Vatican currently in Beijing — stated that the new agreement allowed for “the intervention of the Holy Father for sure” in the appointment of bishops. However, it remains unclear whether this actually equates to a veto power for the Pope in the appointment of bishops.
The deal, if finalized and observed, would end the tug of war between the Holy See and China on the appointment of bishops and could potentially pave the road for normalising diplomatic ties between Beijing and the Vatican.
Diplomatic ties do not officially exist between the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See, stemming from a long and convoluted history dating to the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War that exiled the Nationalist regime to Taiwan and established the current government of mainland China seated in Beijing. China expelled representatives of the Church in 1951 and began selecting and ordaining bishops independent of papal authority under the supervision of the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA). Pope Pius XII condemned the CCPA and the formation of a “patriotic Chinese Catholic Church” and declared bishops who participated in the ordination of non-papal sanctioned clergy excommunicated from the Catholic Church in his 1958 encyclical Ad Apostolorum principis.
Numbering 10 to 12 million today, China’s Catholics are divided between those who choose to worship in state-sanctioned churches and those who remain loyal to the Pope — the “underground churches.” Attendees of the underground churches are at the constant risk of being harassed and detained by the government authorities.
The official recognition of the seven state-appointed bishops by the Pope paves the way for all other state-appointed bishops to formally receive the blessing of the Pope and operate under the Pope’s authority. However, it remains unclear as to what this provisional agreement would mean for over 30 “underground bishops” — unauthorized by the Chinese government — that currently serve as Vatican-recognized clergy for the Chinese Catholic Church. An earlier report in late January 2018 claimed that the Pope had reportedly asked for several of these “underground” clergy to step aside in favor of Beijing’s picks.
The alleged agreement has received criticism from conservatives within the Church and clerics and parishioners in China who have defied Beijing. Cardinal Joseph Zen — the retired Archbishop of Hong Kong and an ardent critic of Beijing who spearheaded opposition to the Vatican’s earlier dropping of “underground” bishops — has stated that “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.” Calling the purported deal an “incredible betrayal,” Cardinal Zen also suggested that the agreement would allow the Chinese government to exert more control over the Church in China in general.
However, optimists regarding the success of the agreement have pointed out that “China has changed and the Church has changed and this is what constitutes a new opportunity for this dialogue to succeed." Others have characterized the deal as “the greatest historic success” as it “re-established the communion between the two churches.”
Meanwhile, the CCPA and the Council of Bishops of the Church of China (both state-run bodies that remain unrecognized by the Vatican) jointly issued a statement on Sept. 24, 2018, welcoming the “historic” deal “with heartfelt appreciation” while stating that the Chinese Catholic Church will “continue to operate independently” and remain “on the path to socialism.”