Vatican and China extend ‘experimental’ agreement on appointment of bishops

Vatican officials believe a long-term deal could improve the lives of Chinese Catholics, but critics say the negotiations have already prompted Pope Francis to remain silent on human rights abuses.

A view of St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City and Rome from the top of Michelangelo’s dome in St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo by David Iliff/Creative Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A controversial secret deal between the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China on how Catholic bishops in China are appointed has been extended for another two years, according to a Vatican statement. The agreement has been criticized for appeasing China on a human rights issue and puts the Vatican at odds with the United States.

Signed September 2018 in Beijing, the deal remains in an “experimental implementation phase,” said the statement released Thursday (Oct. 22). While the specific content of the agreement remains unknown, reports say that it lays out a system for the church and the Chinese government to agree on the appointment of bishops.

“The Holy See considers the initial application of the Agreement — which is of great ecclesial and pastoral value — to have been positive, thanks to good communication and cooperation between the Parties on the matters agreed upon, and intends to pursue an open and constructive dialogue for the benefit of the life of the Catholic Church and the good of Chinese people,” the Vatican said.

Relations between China and the church have long been fraught. The two states have not had official diplomatic ties since 1951, and the Vatican is the only European state that still recognizes Beijing’s rival, Taiwan. The Communist Party has also been uneasy about the church’s potential influence in the country.

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Catholics in China are split between followers of the official church, recognized by the state and guided by government-appointed bishops, and those who belong to the so-called underground church, led by Vatican-appointed bishops.

The provisional deal apparently aims to resolve the issue of bishop appointments and, as a sign of goodwill, both Pope Francis and Beijing have recognized some of each side’s existing bishops.

Chinese Bishop Joseph Li Shan, right, performs rites during a Holy Saturday Mass on the evening before Easter at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, a government-sanctioned Catholic church in Beijing, on March 31, 2018. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Vatican officials believe a long-term deal could improve the lives of Chinese Catholics, especially those in the underground church. But critics say the negotiations have already prompted Pope Francis to remain silent on human rights abuses by the Chinese government, including its crackdown on Muslim Uighurs.

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently traveled to Italy and the Vatican to warn against the overtures by the Beijing government.

“Nowhere is religious freedom under assault as much as it is in China today,” Pompeo said at a symposium on Sept. 30 in Rome, urging faith leaders to “exercise a moral witness against the persecution of believers.”

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High-ranking prelates present at the symposium, including Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, praised the United States for its advocacy for religious freedom but dismissed its opposition to the agreement.

“All will go well,” Parolin told reporters on Wednesday, adding that while he hopes the deal will ultimately result in the establishment of diplomatic relations, “we do not think that the agreement can solve all the problems in China.”

Pope Francis, left, on May 7, 2019, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, on June 29, 2019. (AP Photos)

The deal has also generated criticism of Pope Francis by the conservative fringe of the Catholic Church, but according to Ken Hackett, a U.S. ambassador to the Holy See under President Barack Obama, the deal had been in the works long before the arrival of the Argentine pontiff.

“From my experience, the Vatican has been on this topic for decades, so this is not something that has happened overnight,” Hackett told Religion News Service in an interview.

But the easing of tensions in China is in keeping with Francis’ diplomacy of engagement and dialogue. In 2014, he was credited with paving the way for the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. Francis crowned that success the following year when he visited Havana himself.

If this pontificate can negotiate a first-ever papal visit to China, “it would be symbolic,” the former ambassador said, “and Pope Francis is full of symbolism.”

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