Pope Francis Likely to Sign Deal on Chinese Bishops

According to a Vatican source, a deal between the Holy See and Beijing on the appointment of Catholic bishops in China is ready, and could be signed by Pope Francis in the coming months. This news comes over a year after the Pope declared optimism on warming relations with China, which itself came months after reports on talks between Beijing and the Vatican to reach a deal involving the ordination of bishops in China. At Reuters, Philip Pullella reports on the implications of the as-of-yet un-signed agreement:

An even partial resolution of the thorny issue of who gets to appoint bishops could open the way for a resumption of diplomatic relations nearly 70 years after they were cut during the Communist takeover of China.

Full relations would give the Church a legal framework to look after all of China’s estimated 12 million Catholics and move on to focus on Catholic growth in a country where Protestant churches are already growing fast.

[…] Under the formal deal, the Vatican will have a say in negotiations for the appointment of future bishops, the source told Reuters, declining to give details.

“It is not a great agreement but we don’t know what the situation will be like in 10 or 20 years. It could even be worse,” the source said on Thursday.

“Afterwards we will still be like a bird in a cage but the cage will be bigger,” he said. “It is not easy. Suffering will continue. We will have to fight for every centimetre to increase the size of the cage,” he added […] [Source]

Since 1957, Catholicism in China has been supervised by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a body overseen by the State Administration for Religious Affairs but unrecognized and at times deplored by the Vatican. Chinese Catholics unwilling to give spiritual authority to Beijing have been forced to worship clandestinely in “underground churches.” Since being inaugurated in 2013, Pope Francis has repeatedly indicated a desire to improve relations with China— a goal that has drawn criticism from some, including former bishop of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, who argued that Pope Francis “does not understand the Chinese Communist Party at all.” The above-linked Reuters article also quotes Cardinal Zen on the upcoming agreement: “So, do I think that the Vatican is selling out the in China? Yes, definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all they are doing in recent years and months.”

The Vatican’s likely upcoming decision will end the excommunication of seven CPCA-recognized bishops. From The Wall Street Journal’s Francis X. Rocca and Eva Dou, who also note that the further thaw in relations comes as China is engaged in a crackdown on religious practice:

For years, the Vatican didn’t recognize the bishops’ ordinations, which were carried out in defiance of the pope and considered illicit, part of a long-running standoff between the Catholic Church and China’s officially atheist Communist Party.

The pope will lift the excommunications of the seven prelates and recognize them as the leaders of their dioceses, according to the person familiar with the situation. A Vatican spokesman declined to comment.

[…] The pope’s conciliatory approach stands out at a moment when China is tightening its grip on religious practice under the more assertive leadership of President Xi Jinping.

[…] The bishops approved by the Beijing-backed are seen as more willing to toe the government’s line, or even to support a Chinese Catholic Church free of the Vatican’s influence. Several of the bishops are members of a government advisory body controlled by the Communist Party. […] [Source]

The Washington Post’s Simon Denyer reports on varied reactions to news of the upcoming deal:

“A lot of people like myself look to the Holy See as one of the strongest defenders of and the Catholic faith,” said Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and a pro-democracy activist. “To me, this is disturbing. I don’t think it sends the right message.”

[…] A senior Vatican official said that, under the deal, the Vatican would have a say in negotiations for the appointment of future bishops and described the situation as still “like a bird in a cage, but the cage will be bigger,” Reuters reported.

[…] In an interview with Vatican Insider published this week, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope’s secretary of state, argued that the dialogue was about “finding realistic pastoral solutions that allow Catholics to live their faith and continue together the work of evangelization in the specific Chinese context.”

[…] In China, a priest at St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the largest in the city of Tianjin and part of the state system, said believers would “of course” welcome the deal. “It is good for the country, the people and believers,” said the priest, who gave his name only as Zhang. He said it would give them an “international partner” and remove obstacles to the practice of their religion. […] [Source]

For a concise outline of 70 years of strained Sino-Vatica relations and their recent gradual thaw, see a recent report from Quartz. For more on the Catholic Church, Christianity, or religious persecution in China, see prior coverage via CDT