Vatican Says It Expects to Renew Deal with China on Naming Bishops

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, Wednesday, April 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

ROME — The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told journalists Monday that the common intention of China and the Holy See is to renew the 2018 agreement on the appointment of bishops, which is due to expire in October.

The controversial agreement, whose provisions have never been revealed, ceded an unspecified amount of authority regarding the naming of bishops to the Chinese Communist Party.

This past July, the U.S.-based cybersecurity firm Recorded Future revealed that Chinese hackers had targeted the Vatican and the Holy See’s Study Mission to China — a group of Hong Kong-based Vatican diplomats who have been negotiating with Beijing over the Church’s status in China.

Critics of the Vatican-China deal have insisted that the situation for Christians in China has not improved since the accord was signed, but has in fact worsened.

Last January, the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) released its annual report on human rights conditions and rule of law developments in China, which revealed an overall deterioration of religious liberty in China over the year 2019, a situation aggravated by the Sino-Vatican deal.

“In September 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed an agreement with the Holy See, paving the way for the unification of state-sanctioned and underground Catholic communities,” the report states. “Subsequently, local Chinese authorities subjected Catholic believers in China to increased persecution by demolishing churches, removing crosses, and continuing to detain underground clergy.”

“The Party-led Catholic national religious organizations also published a plan to ‘sinicize’ Catholicism in China,” the report continued, referring to the stated aim of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of forcing all religions to conform their teachings and practices to the party line.

Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has doubled down on the “sinicization” of religion, the report’s executive summary noted. “Scholars and international rights groups have described religious persecution in China over the last year to be of an intensity not seen since the Cultural Revolution,” it adds.

While the Holy See’s aim was “for Chinese Catholic believers to have bishops recognized by both the Holy See and Chinese authorities,” the report also said that “observers noted that the Chinese government was likely seeking to increase its control over the underground community.”

China has in fact cracked down on the underground church ever since the Holy See softened its position on the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association, allowing believers to join despite its assertion of total independence from Rome.

“Although the terms of the agreement were not made public, a source familiar with the negotiations stated that the agreement gave the Chinese government the authority to nominate bishops, which the Pope would retain the right to veto,” the report continued. “The Holy See also recognized seven formerly excommunicated official bishops as part of the deal, having already asked two underground bishops to give up their positions to make way for two of these state-sanctioned bishops.”

The report concluded that the situation of Catholics in China is now worse than it was before the Vatican signed its 2018 accord with the CCP.

“Observers and Catholic believers expressed concern that the agreement did not provide sufficient support for the Chinese Catholic community, with one scholar pointing out that the authorities’ persecution of both underground and official Catholic communities has actually intensified over the last year under the ‘‘sinicization’’ campaign,” it read.

As bad as conditions in China were for Catholics and other Christians in 2019, they have proven even worse in 2020.

A series of draconian administrative measures for religious groups went into effect on February 1, 2020, bringing them even more completely under government control.

As of February, religious organizations must “spread the principles and policies of the Chinese Communist Party” by educating “religious staff and religious citizens to support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” reported AsiaNews, the official press agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.

All religious activities or rallies and even programs of religious communities must have the approval of the Religious Affairs Office, as the new measures seek to complete the “regulations on religious affairs” that went into effect on February 1, 2018.

The government’s religious affairs department will assume absolute control over religious groups and “should perform their functions such as guiding and supervising the groups’ operation,” reports stated.

More broadly, the new regulations “stipulate how the groups should designate their officials, carry out their work and manage their own affairs,” the report stated.

Last June, Vatican Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the head of the delegation in relations with the Chinese government, appeared on Italian television and said that he believed the Vatican would renew the accord this fall.

“Dialogue with China is not an easy path but we have embarked on a path made of respect, attention, and mutual understanding to resolve the knots that remain and the situations that leave us more than thoughtful, I would say worried,” said the archbishop.

“I think we will probably have to reconfirm it for another 1-2 years, but still the Holy See has not made a decision on this matter which will then be communicated to the Chinese authorities,” he said at the time. “However, the climate is positive, and there is an atmosphere of respect, clarity, co-responsibility, and foresight.”

“We try to look to the future and try to give the future of our relationships a deep, respectful basis and I would say that we are working in this direction,” he said.

“It is undeniable that there are situations and events that require a path that will not be easy. But the Holy See wants to continue on this path, it wants to go ahead and reach a normality from which the Chinese Catholics can express all their fidelity to the Gospel and also respect for his Chinese identity. The Catholic Church in China must be fully Chinese but fully Catholic!”

As the Economist magazine noted in a September 13 essay, a “consistent theme of Pope Francis’s papacy has been a drive to improve relations with China, with which the Holy See has had no official ties since 1951.”

The question remains how much Francis is willing to sacrifice in order to achieve his goal.

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