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Vatican, China make breakthrough deal on bishop appointments

In this April 18, 2018, file photo, Pope Francis meets a group of faithful from China at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican. On Sept. 22, 2018, the Vatican announced it had signed a "provisional agreement" with China on the appointment of bishops, a breakthrough on an issue that for decades fueled tensions between the Holy See and Beijing and thwarted efforts toward diplomatic relations. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, file)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican and China said Saturday (Sept. 22) they had signed a “provisional agreement” over the appointment of bishops, a breakthrough on an issue that stymied diplomatic relations for decades and aggravated a split among Chinese Catholics.

The deal resolved one of the major sticking points in recent years, with the Vatican agreeing to accept seven bishops who were previously named by Beijing without the pope’s consent.

The development comes nearly seven decades after the Holy See and Beijing severed official relations. Beijing’s long-held insistence that it must approve bishop appointments in China had clashed with absolute papal authority to pick bishops.

With the status of the seven bishops now reconciled, the Vatican said all bishops in China are now in communion with Rome — even though the Catholic community in China is still split between Catholics who belong to the official Chinese church and those in the underground church who remained loyal to the pope.

“Pope Francis hopes that, with these decisions, a new process may begin that will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics,” a Vatican statement said.

Some Chinese Catholics have opposed such a deal, notably Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, who before the deal was announced called it a sell-out of Chinese Catholics who refused to join the state Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and who paid the price of remaining faithful to Rome during years of persecution.

There was also no immediate mention in the deal of the status of several underground bishops named by the pope.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, speaking in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Pope Francis was visiting, indicated the accord would serve as a blueprint for future appointments of bishops, who lead the faithful in their dioceses.

Burke told reporters the aim of the accord “is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.”

The Vatican’s No. 2 official indicated that the pope and the Chinese authorities would jointly approve new bishop appointments.

“What is required now is unity, is trust, and a new impetus: to have good pastors, recognized by the successor of Peter (Pope Francis) and by the legitimate civil authorities,” said Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

A Vatican official, speaking earlier this year on the contours of the plan, said the deal allows the pope to effectively veto future bishop names proposed by Beijing. That official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because diplomatic negotiations were involved, had described it as the best arrangement the Holy See could achieve for now.

The deal’s provisional nature left open the possibility of improvements down the line.

The Vatican described the provisional agreement as “the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement” after a “long process of careful negotiation.”

While the agreement could help pave the way for formal diplomatic ties and possibly an eventual papal trip to China, it was also sure to anger Catholics who vigorously advocated for the Vatican to maintain a hard line on caring for the 12 million Catholic faithful in China. Zen, the Hong Kong cardinal, didn’t immediately respond to an Associated Press request for comment on the deal.

The accord was signed in Beijing during a meeting between China’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Wang Chao, and the Vatican undersecretary for state relations, Monsignor Antoine Camilleri.

In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry said “China and the Vatican will continue to maintain communications and push forward the process of improving relations between the two sides.”

Even as China professed the desire for better relations with the Holy See, the deal was signed against a backdrop of a Chinese crackdown on religions.

In one glaring case of the plight of pro-Vatican Catholics in China, Bishop Guo Xijin, head of an underground diocese, was whisked away in March by government agents in the southern village of Saiqi.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the new accord affected him and others opposing Chinese authorities.

“The question now is: What is going to happen to the bishops who are under house arrest?” said the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, a Vatican-China expert and chief editor of the missionary news agency Asia News.

Cervellera cited Shanghai’s underground bishop and others under house arrest, as well as priests who were imprisoned. He said that about a year ago, some 10 priests were in prison in Hebei province near Beijing, but he didn’t know their current situation.

The Vatican “had to start a dialogue from a weak position, because China is very powerful and therefore dictated the rules of this dialogue,” Cervellera told the AP.

Under President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, faithful are seeing their freedoms shrink even as the country experiences a religious revival. Experts and activists contend that as Xi is consolidating power, he is waging the most systematic suppression of Christianity since the Chinese Constitution allowed for religious freedom in 1982.

Xi is trying to infuse all of the religions in China with “Chinese characteristics” such as loyalty to the Communist Party.

As part of this drive, Islamic crescents and domes have been stripped from mosques and a campaign is underway to “re-educate” tens of thousands of Uighur Muslims. Tibetan children have been moved from Buddhist temples to schools and banned from religious activities during summer holidays, state-run media have reported.

This spring, a five-year plan regarding Christians was introduced, along with new rules on religious affairs. Over the last few months, local governments across China have shut down hundreds of private Christian “house churches.”

The Vatican spokesman indicated there was still some ways to go for better relations between the Catholic Church and China.

“This is not the end of a process. It’s the beginning,” Burke said. “This has been about dialogue, patient listening on both sides even when people come from very different standpoints.”

In Beijing, Zhang Ye, a 31-year-old Catholic leaving church after a Saturday evening Mass, said the Vatican couldn’t afford to ignore the importance of China and the growing number of believers in the country.

“My biggest wish is that we can have more communication and interactions with Vatican,” he said.

Bridging different points of view has characterized much of Francis’ five-year papacy and led to the Vatican helping improve relations between another communist nation, Cuba, and the United States.

In Taiwan, the reaction focused on the plight of ordinary Catholics in China.

“As the world watches China increasingly tightening control over religious practices, Taiwan trusts that the Holy See has made appropriate arrangements to ensure that Catholic adherents in China will receive due protection and not be subject to repression,” Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said.

(Frances D’emilio writes for The Associated Press. Nicole Winfield in Vilnius, Lithuania; Xun Hou, Wayne Zhange and Gillian Wong in Beijing; Johnson Lai in Taipei; and Paolo Santalucia in Rome contributed.)

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  • This is really good news. It clearly establishes the principle that bishops can be appointed by lay people. How soon will the laity in Western dioceses get to appoint their own bishops? There will probably need to be a gradual transfer of authority from the Vatican to the laity of the local dioceses. A good time to start would be the Conference of Bishops in February.

    Or there is the other possibility. This is just one more example of Vatican hypocrisy, guided, of course, by the Holy Spirit.

  • Some Chinese Catholics have opposed such a deal, notably Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen

    In other words, Zen is more Catholic than the Pope?

  • Well, in a word … no.

    At the death of Leo XII in 1829 555 of the 646 bishops in the Latin Rite were selected by the state in which their diocese existed, subject to approval by the Pontiff.

    At the time of Vatican I (1869-70) this had been scrapped.

    This agreement marks a return to the previous approach.

    The people will not be selecting their bishops.

    The same communist apparatus which controls the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association will select the bishops, and none of them are Christian.

    Every religion in China operates under State Council of the People’s Republic of China order number 426, “Regulations on Religious Affairs”, passed July 7th 2004 by the fifty-seventh standing committee of the State Council, or it does not operate at all.

    If you’re looking for more lay control over bishops, head to:


    Be warned, however, that even they are going to raise some issues with some your sacrilegious twaddle.

  • From the article: “…a campaign is underway to ‘re-educate’ tens of thousands of Uighur Muslims.” This may vastly underestimate the crackdown, which is estimated to cover a million souls or more.

    “As many as one million Uyghur Muslims are under systematic surveillance in detention camps, and placed behind electronic bars, where they cannot venture freely without being called to account for their every activity.”

    “…what the Chinese government describe as, ‘re-education’ centers, hold a ‘low’ estimate of 500,000 and a staggering high estimate of up to 3 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. The vast majority of those detained have never been tried and committed no crime.”

    “Tarim’s testimony bolsters HRW’s latest report, which claims that as many as one million people are being held in “camps” across China’s western region.”

  • CORRECTION: “What the Vatican announced today is that a deal has been signed, but no hint about what it actually contains. It’s not clear, for instance, if the Chinese government will pick a bishop from candidates proposed by the Vatican, whether the Vatican will pick from a list proposed by the Chinese, or whether the pope would have some sort of “veto power.” All we do know is that as part of the accord, Pope Francis has agreed to accept eight bishops who’ve been appointed by the government without Vatican approval, one of whom is now dead. ” Read more:

  • Freedom of religion in China means freedom to follow the state’s dictates.

    For example, all of the Protestant denominations were forcibly merged into a single entity.

  • I’m glad the Vatican knows that it is better for Christianity in China to not be in a fight with the government there.

  • The pope continues try to get us focused on something else.

    Anything but his accountability and credibility problem.

  • When I worked and lived in China, I realized that there are some misconceptions in the West about the Church. There were Bishops in alignment with the Vatican, and I think the Vatican wisely tried to keep all Catholics safe, by not condemning them, nor those who went to Mass in the non-underground church. Other Bishops were definitely not approved. For the Chinese authorities, it was all or nothing. I never found an underground Catholic Church, although once I was invited to a Protestant (house-church) service.I did not go to it. But, in that diocese (I found out later that Bishop was NOT aligned with the Vatican), I did not go to Mass, either, because I could not figure out how to get there. In another later assignment, I bit the bullet and went to Mass (not underground). I figured it was the best I could do, if I wanted to receive Communion. The faithful impressed me with their fervor. I shall never forget a Palm Sunday and Easter there. Once I was followed “home” from Mass, by somebody who had seen me staring stupidly, at some notices in the vestibule. He questioned me. Was he from the underground church? From the government? I don’t know. His knowledge of English and my knowledge of Chinese never allowed me to figure it out. I later heard that diocese, was indeed in alignment with Rome. I pray that the faithful in China will benefit from this.

  • So China holds its Catholics hostage lest the Pope be inclined to address the repression and appropriation of all religions by its government.

  • Environment…
    Straw usage in beverages…
    Making the church less catholic…
    Redefining marriage….
    Redefining the priesthood…

  • Still trying to make that “Big Gay Conspiracy” nonsense a thing. How pathetic.

    Sorry Lying Apologist for Justice Obstructing Clergy, but it is not some cabal of homosexual priests to blame here, just standard operating procedure for the Church for the last few centuries.

  • Scapegoating and covering up for SOP of denial and scandal avoidance tactics.

    Good to know you prefer bigoted attacks over reasonable actions when it comes to clergy abuse. It saves me the trouble of considering you have anything worthwhile to say on the subject.

  • By “address” I assume you mean issue a pointless document a la the United Church of Christ position statements or the Resolutions of the Episcopal Church’s General Conventions, a feel-good meaningless pile of platitudes.

  • “It clearly establishes the principle that bishops can be appointed by lay people.” Time will tell re: the China situation. I don’t see the Vatican agreeing to letting local Catholics select bishops in other parts of the world. Overall, I’m not optimistic although I do support local episcopal selection.

  • The (ordained) priesthood needs to be “redefin[ed]”. Historically speaking, it’s a faux doctrine.

  • Why does it have to be redefined?
    Why can’t we be more selective and find a bunch of straight guys that want to devote themselves to the church by being celibate.

  • Throughout history most bishops have been appointed based on economic or political consideration in coordination with the powerful within a state in exchange for being the official religion. Bishops were often an extension of the state as much as they were of the official religion. This proposed arrangements with China appears to be a traditional approach with terms to negotiated. The Washington Post article gives more insight to the discussion.

    Wonder when Bishops will be able to buy a position or pass on the post for their offspring like in pre-Reformation times?

  • The first amendment prohibits that activity. Can you imagine with all the various denominations what a chore and catastrophe that might be for the government to select the leaders? Further, most American religious organizations follow a somewhat democratic selection process with lay members and clerical representatives voting on leadership roles. .

  • Interesting, thanks. Will China end up going through its own pre-Reformation period of sorts? Instead of ruling royalty, state leadership would be the Communist Party “makers and shakers”.

  • Fair question. The ordained priesthood is not based on the earliest history of the Christian churches, nor is it based on the four canonical gospels (CCC-125). Jesus never identifies himself as any kind of “priest”. He says he is a “prophet”, and other N.T. sources show followers acknowledging Jesus as a “prophet”. Going one step further, in JAMES 5:13-15, the writer mentions the ministry of “presbyters of the church…pray[ing] over [a sick person] and anoint[ing] with oil in the name of the Lord.” A presbyter’s priesthood, like that of fellow Christians, both male and female, was based on baptism, not on any kind of ministerial ordination. For more information, please see my reply to Mr. Connelly at “National meeting signals ‘coming of age’ for Hispanic Catholics in US”.

  • All one need do is reflect on the papacies of the last two popes (especially perhaps JPII) who ruled with iron fists. They made life hell for progressive bishops and theologians who were perceived as troublemakers.

  • No it actually works the other way. In practice, it prevents interference from bishops in political affairs…not interference from presidents, sadly.

  • and that you can’t tell the difference between a child predator, and an adult who is only interested in adult consenting relations tells us what ?