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Vatican Announces Accord with China on Naming of Bishops

Preparations before a Mass in Anyang, in the province of Henan, China, last month
Pak Yiu/Agence France-Presse/Getty

The Vatican announced the signing of a “provisional agreement” with China on the appointment of bishops Saturday, without specifying the terms of the accord.

The heads of the Vatican and Chinese delegations met in Beijing on Saturday, the Vatican communiqué states, where “the two representatives signed a Provisional Agreement on the appointment of Bishops.”

“The above-mentioned Provisional Agreement, which is the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement, has been agreed following a long process of careful negotiation and foresees the possibility of periodic reviews of its application,” the communiqué says.

The long-awaited deal with China over bishops has been seen as the first step toward restoring diplomatic relations between the two parties and is the outcome of a series of meetings that began early in the Francis pontificate.

Critics have complained that ceding authority on the naming of bishops to a secular authority, and especially to an avowedly atheist regime like the Chinese Communist Party, directly contradicts Catholic teaching and violates common sense.

According to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in its decree on bishops, “the right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and per se exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority.”

“Therefore, for the purpose of duly protecting the freedom of the Church and of promoting more conveniently and efficiently the welfare of the faithful, this holy council desires that in future no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be granted to civil authorities,” states the decree Christus Dominus.

The Catholic Church considers the naming of bishops its sacred right because of the eminently spiritual role that bishops play.

The most significant conflict between church and state in medieval Europe, commonly referred to as the “Investiture Controversy,” was a struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire over who had the authority to appoint local church officials such as bishops and abbots.

The Investiture Controversy began in 1075 as a power struggle between Pope Gregory VII (1072–1085) and Holy Roman Emperor Henry V (1056–1106) but continued well beyond their respective rules.

The conflict finally ended in 1122, when Emperor Henry V and Pope Calixtus II agreed on the Concordat of Worms, which differentiated between the secular and spiritual powers and significantly limited the emperors’ role in selecting bishops. The outcome was considered mainly a victory for the pope and his claim of spiritual authority and the right of investiture has been zealously guarded ever since.

The most vocal critic of the Vatican-China deal has been Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, who has urged the Vatican not to be so eager for an accord with China that it would surrender its own rights and betray Chinese Catholics of the underground Church who have suffered persecution for decades in order to remain loyal to Rome.

In an interview with Reuters this week, Cardinal Zen called for the resignation of Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, saying that the agreement he has been brokering with China amounts to an “incredible betrayal” of the Catholic faith.

In the interview, Zen described Cardinal Parolin as a secular bureaucrat with little interest in the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful.

“I don’t think he has faith. He is just a good diplomat in a very secular, mundane meaning,” Zen said. “He should resign.”

Last January, Zen published an open letter to the media accusing the Vatican of “selling out” the Chinese Church by surrendering to demands of the Communist leaders.

The cardinal has also said that Pope Francis “is really naïve” and “doesn’t know the Chinese communists,” adding that “the people around him are not good at all. They have very wrong ideas. And I’m afraid that they may sell out our underground Church.”

In a separate statement Saturday, Cardinal Parolin said that the accord seeks to bring about unity, trust and a new impetus: “to have good Pastors, recognized by the Successor of Peter – by the Pope – and by the legitimate civil Authorities.”

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