The China-Vatican agreement has been extended. Now, Rome is looking for more from Beijing.

The Chinese national flag is pictured in a file photo in front of a Catholic church in the village of Huangtugang. (CNS photo/Thomas Peter, Reuters)The Chinese national flag is pictured in a file photo in front of a Catholic church in the village of Huangtugang. (CNS photo/Thomas Peter, Reuters)

On Oct. 22, the Holy See and China announced that they had agreed to extend the provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops for another two years. At the end of this “for experiment” agreement—the expression used by the Vatican—the accord will either become definitive or another decision will have to be taken. Between now and then, however, the Vatican will want to see some concrete results.

Pope Francis, committed to the culture of dialogue and encounter and opposed to confrontation, gave the green light for the extension despite pressure to terminate the agreement. External pressure came from various political actors, including the United States as articulated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while internal pressure surfaced from sectors of the church, including cardinals such as Joseph Zen of Hong Kong and Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Sources close to the pope told America that Francis is aware of the criticisms of the Holy See’s approach to China and remains informed of the deeply troubling situation there as periodic crackdowns on religion and repression of human rights continue, but he is convinced that the path to change is through dialogue and the building of trust with the Chinese leadership, not through confrontation.

Pope Francis, committed to the culture of dialogue and encounter and opposed to confrontation, gave the green light for the extension despite pressure to terminate the agreement.

The text of the agreement, signed in September 2018 and extended in October, remains secret by mutual consent but, as Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, remarked, much of its content is known. Moreover, he added, Benedict XVI approved a draft of the agreement when he was pope.

An article published in L’Osservatore Romano on the day the extension was announced stated that “the primary objective” of the agreement regarding the appointment of bishops in China “is that of sustaining and promoting the proclamation of the Gospel in that land, restoring the full and visible unity of the Church.” It added that “the primary motivations” that guide the Holy See in its dialogue with the Chinese authorities “are fundamentally of an ecclesiological and pastoral nature” because the question of the appointment of bishops “is of vital importance for the life of the Church, both at the local as well as at the universal levels.”

It explained that the Second Vatican Council’s teaching “regarding the particular role of the Supreme Pontiff within the Episcopal College and in the appointment of bishops itself, inspired the negotiations” and “was a point of reference in the drafting of the text of the agreement.”

According to the article, this will ensure “little by little as things go forward, both the unity of faith and the communion among the bishops” and thus serve Catholic community in China. It highlighted the fact that because of the agreement, for the first time since 1958 when the first illicit ordinations took place in China, “all of the bishops in China are in communion with the Bishop of Rome” and “there will be no more illegitimate ordinations.”

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“The primary objective” of the agreement regarding the appointment of bishops in China “is that of sustaining and promoting the proclamation of the Gospel in that land, restoring the full and visible unity of the Church.” 

From the Vatican’s perspective, the major achievement was the acceptance by Beijing that the Bishop of Rome, the pope, has the final say in the appointment of bishops in China. Chinese authorities had rejected this authority before as an interference in the internal affairs of the country. For its part Beijing got the Vatican to accept the process of “the democratic election” of candidates to be bishops, something not envisaged in canon law. For Francis, however, that concession was less of a problem, given his knowledge of the history of the involvement of Spanish and Portuguese monarchs in the appointment of bishops in Latin America in past centuries.

Speaking in Milan on the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Italian P.I.M.E. (Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions) missionaries in Henan, China, Cardinal Parolin noted that “misunderstandings” had arisen about the agreement “because extraneous objectives or unrelated events regarding the life of the Catholic Church in China were attributed to the agreement and it was even connected to political issues that have nothing to do with the actual agreement which ‘exclusively concerns the appointment of bishops.’”

He reminded his audience that the agreement is not just “a point of arrival” after decades of negotiation; it is most importantly “a point of departure” for the church in China and Sino-Vatican relations.

Since the agreement’s signing, however, only two bishops have been appointed in China, and their nominations had already been agreed to by both sides long before. An informed source told America that other episcopal appointments are expected to be announced soon. Nevertheless, even taking account of the situation created by Covid-19, which started in China at the end of 2019 but now seems under control there, the delay in processing appointments caused some observers to question the political will of Beijing to implement its part of the agreement.

Since there are more than 40 dioceses in China that now require a new bishop, the Vatican will want to see the election and nomination of many of those bishops and their approval by the pope before October 2022 when the experimental period ends. That would be a first real verification of the provisional agreement and an important sign of Beijing’s good will.

The Rev. Gianni Criveller is a P.I.M.E. missionary and Chinese scholar who taught in China for 25 years before taking up his present post as dean of studies at the P.I.M.E. seminary in Monza, northern Italy.

Following the announcement of the Sino-Vatican decision to extend the agreement, he wrote in the magazine Mondo e Missione: “The agreement just renewed between the Holy See and China is not [a peace accord] between the two sides: it is not the end of the troubles for Catholics in China, nor does it sanction religious freedom in China. It is a compromise, strongly contested by many and celebrated with excessive enthusiasm by others. It is not a situation that is advantageous to everyone. I believe that the Vatican paid a higher price than Beijing. It is an agreement that perhaps the Holy See could not have renounced without causing further difficulties to Catholics in China.”

China has gained international prestige because of its relations with the Vatican. The Holy See should now seek to obtain more concrete results from its deal with Beijing.

While supporting the Vatican’s decision and reporting that “Chinese Catholics respect and love the pope and, out of loyalty, accept the accord, even if they do not have to approve it,” he suggested that part of the “rather high price” paid by the Holy See has led to “a weakening of the prophetic role of the church” because it is not speaking out publicly on the sufferings of the various religious communities in China.

He referred not just to the sufferings of Christians but also Buddhists in Tibet and Muslims in Xinjiang, as well as the violation of human rights in Hong Kong and among Mongolians in the north of China. He thinks China has gained international prestige because of its relations with the Vatican and feels that the Holy See should now seek to obtain more concrete results of benefit to believers in China from its deal with Beijing.

Today, there are around 100 Catholic bishops in mainland China; many are very old, but all are now united with the pope because of the agreement. Some 30 of them belong to the underground church and refuse to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, so they are not recognized by the authorities in Beijing. The situation of these bishops has become more difficult since the agreement as, contrary to what Rome expected, Chinese authorities have used it to pressure underground bishops and priests to submit to the state’s religious policies.

While the agreement does not address their plight, the Vatican would want in the extension phase, as a matter of priority and urgency, to reach with Beijing a dignified resolution of their situation, one that would not require them to join the Patriotic Association. Before the signing of the 2018 agreement, Pope Francis showed magnanimity in regularizing the situation of seven illicitly ordained bishops (plus one who had died) at the insistence of Beijing.

Since then, however, Beijing has not reciprocated with any similarly positive gesture towards the underground bishops. The Vatican will want to see movement on this front since the matter goes to the heart of its effort to promote reconciliation between the state-recognized and the underground church communities in China.

Referring to the plight of these underground bishops and giving voice to the desire of Chinese Catholics, Father Criveller told America he would like to see the Chinese authorities “recognize their dignity and allow them to operate freely without the control of the Patriotic Association.”

One of the most troubling issues are regulations that prevent parents from giving children religious instruction or prohibit them from taking children to church.

But Catholic bishops in China lack real freedom of assembly and movement. As one Vatican official told me some years ago, the church in China “is like a bird in a cage,” and the Holy See is seeking “to make the cage larger, to gain more space.”

In this context, Father Criveller said he would like to see in this new phase of the Sino-Vatican dialogue that Beijing grants all the Chinese bishops “the possibility not only to communicate freely among themselves and to meet to discuss pastoral issues without the presence of state officials, but also to be able to visit Rome, meet Vatican officials and the pope, as bishops in other countries can do.”

That, of course, is something the Vatican has long desired. In the past it has asked China to allow the Holy See to have a representative in Beijing who would be Rome’s point of contact with the Chinese bishops and with the authorities. Beijing has not been open to this; it remains to be seen if the friendlier climate between the two parties can lead to that appointment over the next two years.

There are many other unresolved questions on which the Vatican will want to reach an agreement with Chinese authorities in due course. Among them, it will want Beijing to eliminate or at least suspend the practice of the convocation of clergy for political indoctrination and making them “disappear” for an unspecified time for this purpose.

One of the most troubling issues for the Vatican and the church in China are the regulations being enforced by the authorities since February 2018 that prevent parents from giving children under the age of 18 any religious instruction or prohibit them from taking children to church or participating in any event linked to religion. America has learned that the Vatican has protested these restrictions and hopes Beijing will return to a mode of greater tolerance.

There are other matters that the Vatican will want to address before approaching the question of diplomatic relations. It cannot overlook the unresolved questions as to the whereabouts of two elderly bishops and whether they are still alive. Another important issue is the need to resolve in a dignified manner the situation of the bishop of Shanghai, Thaddeus Ma Daquin, who was taken away on the day of his episcopal ordination on July 7, 2012 and has been deprived of his freedom and pastoral ministry ever since.

Cardinal Parolin said he is “aware of the existence of various problems regarding the life of the Catholic Church in China” but emphasized “that it is impossible to confront all the issues together.”

Nevertheless, it is to be expected that the Vatican will seek to address some of these issues with Beijing over the coming two years. Before the signing of the provisional agreement, China had refused to address these questions, saying they were matters for subsequent discussion.

Two years later, it should be possible to consider them in the improved climate of understanding and increasingly friendlier relations. Pope Francis hopes that by building trust and friendship through sincere dialogue, relations can improve between Rome and Beijing and new doors can be opened, not only in the religious field but also in relation to such global issues as peace, climate change and human rights. The next two years will reveal how far China is willing to go down this road with the Holy See.

[Watch this next: The Catholic Church in China | A Short Documentary]

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