The Vatican is ready to renew its deal with China. Privately, officials admit they’re walking a tightrope.

(Left: CNS photo/Vatican Media; Right: CNS photo/Luong Thai Linh, Pool via Reuters)

The Holy See will communicate to representatives of the Chinese government a proposal approved by Pope Francis for the renewal of the provisional agreement with China.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state and a key figure in the dialogue with China, responding to journalists’ questions on Sept. 14, confirmed the Vatican’s intention to extend the provisional agreement for “at least 2 years” and “in that way to verify its usefulness for the church in China.” He said he thinks and hopes China wants this too.

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Sources contacted by America, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the press, also expect an extension of the provisional agreement because they believe it is practical for both sides.

While Vatican officials have thus far publicly defended the agreement with enthusiasm, privately, they are more sober in their analysis. In several conversations, they have acknowledged the obstacles and challenges that remain while expressing hope for future talks.

While Vatican officials have thus far publicly defended the agreement with enthusiasm, privately, they are more sober in their analysis.

From the Vatican’s perspective, the agreement is functional because it has opened a way to engage in a direct dialogue with China not only on the nomination of bishops but on other questions like the normalization of the life of the church in China and, in due course, to diplomatic relations with China, something that has been severed since 1951.

From the Chinese perspective, the agreement can be seen as facilitating the official registration of all Catholic bishops, priests and communities, including those of the so-called underground community, which according to some estimates account for almost half of the country’s 10 million Catholics. China moreover sees that it stands to gain in international reputation from a positive relation with the Holy See and Pope Francis; particularly at this moment in history when opposition to, and distrust of China is growing in many countries, including the United States, because of its crackdown on Hong Kong, its repression of the Uighurs and its initial handling of information regarding coronavirus. Notably, Pope Francis and the Holy See have been silent on these issues of human rights and international law.

When asked by Phoenix TV, (a Hong Kong-based media company with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party) at the regular press conference at the foreign ministry in Beijing, Sept. 10, to confirm reports that China and the Vatican “are in negotiations on renewing the 2018 interim agreement on the appointment of bishops,” a spokesperson for the ministry, Zhao Lijian, said, “With the concerted efforts from both sides, the interim agreement on the appointment of bishops between China and the Vatican has been implemented successfully since it was signed nearly two years ago.” He concluded, “The two sides will continue to maintain close communication and consultation and improve bilateral relations.”

The provisional agreement was signed in Beijing in September 2018 and came into force one month later. The Vatican then hailed it as “the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement” and “a long process of careful negotiation” that “foresees the possibility of periodic reviews of its application.”

To this day, the text of the provisional agreement has been kept secret, much to the chagrin of many Chinese Catholics who say the secrecy allows the Chinese authorities to claim that bishops and priests must obey their instructions because the Vatican agrees with Beijing.

America has learned that China insisted on the secrecy and the Vatican acquiesced perhaps because, as one source remarked, “while it’s not a good agreement, it’s better than no agreement, and there’s hope it can be improved.”

“While it’s not a good agreement, it’s better than no agreement, and there’s hope it can be improved.”

The agreement only concerns the nomination of bishops. It does not did not deal with other important questions that the Vatican wished to address, but the Chinese side refused to discuss prior to the signing. It does not address the question of the underground bishops and priests; the status of the Chinese bishops’ conference, which is not recognized by Rome because only state-recognized bishops belong to it or the number of dioceses on the mainland.

From the Vatican’s viewpoint, one of the most positive aspects is the existence of a de-facto international agreement between the Holy See and China; the first such accord since the communists came to power in 1949, and one that recognizes that the pope has the final word in the nomination of bishops.

Additionally, as a consequence of the act of reconciliation of the eight illicit bishops by Pope Francis prior to the signing of the agreement, all the Catholic bishops in China are now united with the Successor of Peter. There were 100 at the end of 2019, of whom 69 are officially recognized by Beijing, and the 31 underground are not, according to The Holy Spirit Center, Hong Kong.

Vatican sources describe the Holy See’s relations with Beijing as “cordial” and more friendly since the signing of the agreement. They note “a changing attitude” on the part of the Chinese. Nevertheless, they acknowledge that there have been tensions and problems continue to exist.

At the time of the agreement’s signing, a crackdown on religion was already underway in China as Beijing demanded that all bishops and priests be officially registered with the Patriotic Association. Pressure was being put at the local level, though more forcibly in some provinces than others.

A Vatican source reminded America that “there is not just one China,” referring to the different political realities at provincial level and how the church’s relation with the authorities varied from province to province following the agreement. It has improved in some, not changed in others, but deteriorated in a number of places.

Since Sept. 2018, for example, crosses have been removed from church edifices in many dioceses in provinces across the country, including Anhui, Hebei, Henan, Guizhou and Zhejiang.

Perhaps most troubling, Beijing has sought to enforce regulations over the past two years that make it illegal for parents to give a religious education to their children up to the age of 18 and prohibits children and young people from participating in any church or religious related activities, including church organized summer camps. The Vatican has protested this in a diplomatic way to Beijing, but to little or no avail.

Even as the time for renewal of the agreement approached, pressure regarding registration continued to be forcibly exercised in some places according to sources in China. In early August, for example, the underground Bishop Julius Jia of Zhending, Hebei, was again taken away by government officials seeking to get him to register.

In another case, on Sept. 1, the Rev. Liu Maochun, an underground priest of Mindong diocese, was also taken away as he was on his way to visit sick people in a hospital. By Sept. 12 his whereabouts remained unknown. America has learned that the Vatican privately protests such disappearances, but China continues the practice regardless.

Overall, the concrete fruits of the agreement are still meager when it comes to nomination of bishops, as Vatican officials admit. Only two new bishops have been ordained since the agreement was signed, but their nominations were already agreed before Sept. 2018.

America has learned that three more bishops will soon be ordained, but this is a small number given the more than 40 dioceses that lack a bishop. Nevertheless, although the agreement did not address the situation of the “underground” bishops, seven have been recognized by the state over the past two years.

In the absence of diplomatic relations, the Holy See has long sought to open an office in Beijing with a permanent representative there to facilitate communications with the authorities and the local church, as has happened with Vietnam, but so far China has refused.

Vatican officials recognize that China has the upper hand in the negotiations. Prior to the signing of the agreement one official told me, “they have the knife in the hand,” meaning if the Holy See had not signed, then China could simply go ahead and appoint bishops to some 40 dioceses and thereby greatly compromise the church’s future in a country where it has existed for centuries.

The signing has given rise to some positive fruits, nonetheless. First, the dialogue continues, and in a more positive spirit. The Chinese embassy to Italy serves as a channel for ongoing communication.

Second, official delegations from both sides meet once or twice annually, at the deputy-foreign minister level, either at the Vatican or in Beijing. The next meeting is to be in Rome and was expected to formalize the extension of the provisional agreement, but no date has been set because of Covid-19 travel restrictions.

In addition to these official encounters, there is also a joint working group that meets with some regularity. It most recently met in Beijing last November. On that occasion, the Chinese allowed Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the head of the Vatican delegation, to celebrate Mass in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, the first time a Vatican bishop has been permitted to do so since 1949.

Beijing’s Bishop Li Shan and other priests concelebrated, and the bishop invited the Vatican delegation for dinner afterwards. On that and earlier occasions, the Vatican delegates made closely monitored visits to some dioceses to meet the local bishops in connection with the agreement.

While Pope Francis has publicly expressed his wish to visit China, the communist authorities consider this “premature,” sources told America. Nevertheless, a significant diplomatic step forward was taken on Feb. 14, 2019, when the secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, met his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during an international security conference in Munich.

While Pope Francis has publicly expressed his wish to visit China, the communist authorities consider this “premature.”

It was the first such high-level encounter since the communists came to power. Up to then, meetings took place at the lower level of deputy-foreign minister.

If China were to pursue the diplomatic ladder approach with the Holy See, the next logical step would be a meeting between its prime minister, Li Keqiang, and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, who has long played a key role in the China-Vatican dialogue.

Such an encounter could pave the way to the establishment of diplomatic relations, but China would require the Holy See to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan at that same time. Neither question has been broached so far in the bilateral negotiations, according to Vatican sources.

However, the Holy See has been ready for that eventuality since the pontificate of St. John Paul II. As Cardinal Angelo Sodano, then secretary of state, told journalists in 1999, the Vatican is ready to move its embassy from Taipei to Beijing “not tomorrow, but tonight if the Chinese authorities allow it.”

If the provisional agreement is extended for another two years, as is expected, then some headway may be made on the many unresolved questions that remain. But it is difficult to predict where progress may come or how soon.

[Read this next: The risks for the Catholic Church in China are real—but the church is ready to face them.]

[WATCH: The Catholic Church in China: a short documentary]

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