Source: China and the Vatican to sign historic agreement by end of September

  Pope Francis holds a letter presented by Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired bishop of Hong Kong, during his general audience at the Vatican Jan. 10. Cardinal Zen says until the Vatican signs an agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, he will continue to speak against it. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Holy See and China are scheduled to sign an agreement in Beijing on the nomination of bishops sometime before the end of September. “It will be a historic breakthrough,” a Vatican source told America. He confirmed that a high-level Holy See delegation will travel to the Chinese capital for the signing and that a date has already been fixed for this ground-breaking event.

The agreement only deals with the question of the nomination of bishops. It gives each side a say in the selection of candidates, but it recognizes that the pope will have the final word in the appointment of bishops for the Catholic Church throughout mainland China.

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Since the Communists came to power in 1949—they later expelled the papal representative and broke relations with the Holy See in 1951—Chinese authorities have insisted that Rome should “not interfere in the internal affairs of China.” This agreement offers a more pragmatic understanding of that declaration by acknowledging the pope’s key role in the nomination of bishops in the most populous country in the world.

Both sides consider it “a provisional agreement,” to be revisited in some years. Sources told America that the Holy See recognizes that it is “not a good agreement,” but it believes that it is the only one possible at present and that, in a small but highly significant way, it opens the door to developing a constructive and improving dialogue with the world’s emerging superpower.

America has learned that the text of the agreement will not be made public, even after the signing.

According to informed sources, the Holy See and Beijing have agreed on a process for the nomination of bishops. Candidates will be chosen at the diocesan level through the “democratic election” system that the Chinese authorities introduced in 1957, whereby the priests of the diocese, together with representatives of women religious and laypeople, vote from among the candidates presented by the authorities that supervise church affairs. The results of these elections will be sent to the Beijing authorities that oversee the church in China, including the bishops’ conference, which will examine them and then submit a name to the Holy See through diplomatic channels. The Holy See will have some months to carry out its own investigation of the candidate and, based on this work, the pope will either approve or exercise his veto. The Holy See will then communicate his decision to Beijing.

Both sides consider it “a provisional agreement,” to be revisited in some years. Sources told America that the Holy See recognizes that it is “not a good agreement,” but it believes that it is the only one possible at present and that, in a small but highly significant way, it opens the door to developing a constructive and improving dialogue with the world’s emerging superpower.

If the pope approves of the candidate, the process will continue. But if he exercises his veto, both sides will engage in a dialogue, and Beijing would eventually be expected to submit the name of another candidate.

The possibility of an agreement has been in the air for some time, but expectations were raised after a high-level Chinese delegation met a similar-ranking Holy See delegation in the Vatican last June. The Holy See, in response to the demands of Beijing, confirmed that Pope Francis would recognize the seven “illegitimate” Chinese bishops—that is, those who were ordained without the pope’s approval over the past decade or more, three of whom had been excommunicated. All seven had previously asked for reconciliation with the pope. This means that for the first time since 1957 (when Beijing began ordaining bishops without papal approval), all the Catholic bishops in mainland China will be in communion with the pope.

The pope’s decision to recognize the seven was well received by Chinese authorities; it opened the path to Beijing’s willingness to sign the agreement with the Holy See. That decision, taken at the highest levels, was communicated to the Vatican just over two weeks ago.

Not long after, the Foreign Ministry in Taiwan announced on Sept. 13 that it had obtained information “from various sources” that an agreement between the Vatican and China on “religious affairs” would most likely to be signed in September or October. This news was quickly picked up by media outlets, but neither Beijing nor the Vatican has officially confirmed it.

At the end of December 2017, there were 101 bishops in China (though some have died since); of these, 65 belong to the “open” church community that is recognized by the Chinese authorities; 36 belong to the “underground” church community and do not have such official recognition because they refuse to be part of the Patriotic Association, a government entity established in 1957 to control the church in China. The association is not recognized by the Holy See.

The upcoming agreement is the result of negotiations that were revived after Francis became pope in March 2013. They have been patiently conducted for several years under the leadership of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, appointed as secretary of state in August 2013, and with the assistance of Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the emeritus president of the now-defunct Pontifical Council for Social Communications. The archbishop has been working toward this goal since the early 1980s. In recent times he headed the Holy See’s delegation to the Joint Working Group established in 2014.

America has learned that the Trump administration is not happy with the agreement, nor are many forces in political and economic fields in the United States, as well as some in the church there and elsewhere. They see it as weakening the struggle for religious freedom in China and point to the crackdown on religion in that country in recent months under President Xi Jinping.

The upcoming agreement is the result of negotiations that were revived after Francis became pope in March 2013.

The Holy See has historically been concerned about this fundamental freedom, but for religious reasons, not political ones. Pope Francis firmly believes in the culture of encounter, not that of confrontation. Sources in Rome say he is convinced that even in the present difficult situation of a crackdown on religion in China, more is to be gained through dialogue, encounter and friendship. The Jesuit pope, following in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci, the famous Italian Jesuit missionary who is buried in Beijing, has given strong leadership in this direction.

China, on the other hand, has always viewed religion through a political lens and has clearly reached the conclusion that there is much to be gained through signing an agreement with the Holy See, even though there are only some 12 million Catholics in the mainland. It understands that both sides share much in common on global issues and can work together toward peace and stability in the world.

After the signing of the provisional agreement, many questions remain to be resolved in bilateral negotiations. The first, and most important of these, relates to the situation of the more than 30 “underground” bishops and their communities.

To gain official recognition today, these bishops would have to join the Patriotic Association, but many will be reluctant to do so. In follow-up negotiations, the Holy See hopes to convince Beijing to bypass this requirement and to open up other ways for them to gain such recognition. It knows that the positive resolution of their situation is fundamental to bringing about reconciliation between the open and underground communities of the church in China.

The Holy See will also have to resolve other issues with Beijing, including the status of the Chinese bishops’ conference (not recognized by Rome because only Beijing-approved bishops belong to it); the number of dioceses in China (the Vatican claims there are 144 dioceses, including 32 vicariates or prefectures, while Beijing insists there are 96); and the possibility for Chinese bishops to freely visit the Holy See and for Vatican officials to visit them.

As for the question of establishing diplomatic relations, informed sources told America that this was not raised in the present negotiations with Beijing, nor was the question of the Holy See’s relations with Taiwan.

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Elizabeth Shaeffer
6 months 1 week ago

Does the Pope not realize he is being played by the Communist Chinese? He's a tool for them. If Pope Francis admits that "it is not a good agreement", why in the world would he sign it, and sell out the faithful Chinese Catholics? Unbelievable.

John Mack
6 months 1 week ago

Why? To ensure the proper administration of the Sacraments. To assure orderly teaching of the the catechism. To ensure Apostolic succession. Oh wait, those are religious reasons. They don't count. To certtain American Catholics, only politics count. Religion is to be used as a weapon, exactly as expressed in the Gospels according to Ayn Rand.. Very sad.

Patty Bennett
6 months 1 week ago

"To assure orderly teaching of the catechism". It is unbelievable that any government which OFFICIALLY FORBIDS BELIEF IN GOD could possibly assure orderly teaching of the catechism. Communists REJECT the catechism! How can you expect them to allow it to be taught well? They already forbid the parents to take their children--oh, wait, CHILD--they're only ALLOWED to have one--to Church. It's just wishful thinking to assume they'd let the catechism be taught.

James Bannon
6 months 1 week ago

Tragic.

James Bannon
6 months 1 week ago

Tragic.

Arthur Sullivan
6 months 1 week ago

I guess to be charitable it might be worth pointing out that this is a better deal than the Pope got with King Henry VIII.

Jeffrey More
6 months 1 week ago

Good point Arthur, but it's also interesting to note (purely in the interests of putting things into historical perspective) that Pius XI got a better deal from Hitler in 1933.

John Hess
6 months 1 week ago

Hitler had a lot more faithful Catholics in Germany than Xi does in China. Context is important. Perhaps, given the general crackdown on religion in general in China, the Pope's deal was the least bad option.

Phillip Stone
6 months 1 week ago

Several remarks are called for.
Jesus told us not to swear, but let our 'yes' be 'yes' and our 'no' be 'no'!
I wish the current successor of Peter to keep saying no until China no longer represents tyrants like Mao and Pol Pot. I wish no compromise on the appointment of who may be chosen to hold the office handed down through the apostles and emphatically not to Caesar.

Secret? Secret! No, most emphatically no.
This is an appalling betrayal of the long-suffering, imprisonment and martyrdom within the truly faithful amongst the Chinese believers until today.

China CHEATS consistently.
Recall how there have been waves of apparent liberalisation announced from central authority in China, time allowed to pass while even very wary people began to relax and accept an apparent change of heart was to be believed - and then, arrests and denunciations and persecution of the people exposed by trusting in the word of the evil regime.

Correct me if I err, did not Matteo Ricci say Mass in the Chinese vernacular and preach using Confucian concepts and wear culturally meaningful robes and have his practice CONDEMNED by Rome?

Now we have a compromising political Jesuit betraying a holy, brave, brilliant evangelist Jesuit and the mission field he found so ripe for harvesting.

Jeffrey More
6 months 1 week ago

I don't pretend to know much about the Church in China, but I've always had the impression that those clerics who refused to knuckle under to the Patriotic Association were, in a real sense, heroic. I imagine it will be an incredibly sad day for the 36 bishops who fall into that category when this agreement is signed. What a shameful betrayal of true faithfulness! And the Holy See obviously agrees, since it will not make the text of the agreement public even after the signing. There is a true profile in courage, if ever there was one! On the other hand, there is something intriguing about the agreement as outlined in this article - perhaps it can be used as a template for other countries, such as ours. Imagine the possibilities! Let's say all of the bishops and cardinals in the U.S. resign (we should only be so lucky!); then, each diocese, spearheaded by groups of lay people and women religious, nominate candidates for the vacant positions (assuming we even need to replace any of the departed whited sepulchres we've just disposed of), and the Holy See rubber-stamps our choices. The Vatican secretariat of state may be on to something here!

John Mack
6 months 1 week ago

The official and unofficial clergy have been wanting an agreement like this. As a starter. Heroism is nice but prudence is the first of the cardinal viryues necessary to practice the virtues of faith, hope and charity. The Catholic church of Shanghai is thriving as a Sacrament based Catholic church under a prudent leader who has worked with the Chinese authorities on a mutually respectful basis. Now that the Chinese govt has ended its one child policy it is easier to be a Catholic there.

Jeffrey More
6 months ago

Would Joseph Cardinal Zen agree? I don't think so. Nor do I think the 36 bishops who are being betrayed by this agreement would agree.

John Mack
6 months 1 week ago

Very wise of the Chinese. Given that government's top down nature it should be able to work with and exercise greater control over top down church than over Protestant evangelical churches that lack a top down central authority.

Tim Donovan
6 months 1 week ago

I believe that, ideally, Pope Francis ' ideals regarding encounter with people with different principles and negotiating to achieve common ground is ideal. However, I agree that the Chinese government can't be trusted. Tens of millions of pregnant women have been forced by the government to have their unborn babies killed by the violence of abortion for at least one generation. Although in the past several years the "one child" policy has supposedly been relaxed, even if this is accurate, as I understand it in at least some regions of China forced abortions continue. As noted, the Chinese government continues to persecute Christians as well as members of other faiths, including Muslims, I believe. Also, the inability of Chinese bishops to freely visit the Vatican, and for Vatican officials to visit freely with Chinese bishops is problematic. The Pope and bishops of each nation must be free to meet to discuss matters regarding the Church both in their individual nations and worldwide. Finally, the proposal to allow laypeople as well as priests and religious sisters to vote on choosing bishops may well be,valid (although I do fear that such a process may simply result in the most popular candidate being chosen, that is the one who is perceived to favor changing Church teaching based on the desires of the laity rather than based on the wisdom of Church teaching). Of course, I realize that in the early Church that laity chose bishops. However, as noted I fear that today the popularity of a candidate for bishop may be given more weight than his adherence to authentic Church teaching. In any case, I think it's certainly wrong to permit government authorities (whether in China,or anywhere else) to have the right to nominate candidates for bishops. Surely, no government officials should have any role in the selection and approval or bishops. While I believe Pope Francis should continue to work to bring better relations between the Church and the Chinese government, I have serious doubts that much good will come from his efforts. Of course, Jesus told us that "with God, all things are possible" (Matthew 19: 26). But I sadly believe only God' s intervention will result in any changes that permit the free exercise of our faith (or any faith).

Andrew Strada
6 months 1 week ago

Pope Francis is truly a worthy successor to Pope Paul VI:

"Even in his Vienna exile, Mindszenty had become an albatross around the neck of the Vatican. In the fall of 1973, as he prepared to publish his Memoirs, the Cardinal suffered the final betrayal. Fearful that the truth would upset the detente with the Marxists, the Pope asked Mindszenty to resign his office. When he refused, the Pope declared his See vacant, to the delight of the communist regime."

Andrew Strada
6 months 1 week ago

Pope Francis is truly a worthy successor to Pope Paul VI:

"Even in his Vienna exile, Mindszenty had become an albatross around the neck of the Vatican. In the fall of 1973, as he prepared to publish his Memoirs, the Cardinal suffered the final betrayal. Fearful that the truth would upset the detente with the Marxists, the Pope asked Mindszenty to resign his office. When he refused, the Pope declared his See vacant, to the delight of the communist regime."

Vincent Gaglione
6 months 1 week ago

And what indeed is the alternative? Excommunicate them all? Or is it, that all may be one? And if so, step-by-step attempts to accomplish that goal are imperative, not just a choice. It may all blow up in our Catholic faces but better to try than to continue to behave as if the problem doesn’t exist. The Catholic Church as an entity once blew up its evangelization of China. Hopefully this brings us closer to greater evangelization and farther away from being the tool of Western political interests.

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