The Vatican and China said yesterday they had signed a historic agreement on the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops, a breakthrough on an issue that for decades fuelled tensions between the Holy See and Beijing and thwarted efforts toward diplomatic relations.
The provisional agreement, which was signed in Beijing by deputy foreign ministers from both sides, was described by the Vatican as “the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement”, following a long process of careful negotiation, and subject to periodic review.
“It concerns the nomination of bishops, a question of great importance for the life of the church, and creates the conditions for greater collaboration,” the Vatican said.
In Beijing, the foreign ministry put out a statement saying: “China and the Vatican will continue to maintain communications and push forward the process of improving relations between the two sides.”
But the deal was denounced by critics as a sellout to the communist government. “They’re [sending] the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal,” Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former archbishop of Hong Kong who has led the opposition to the deal, told Reuters.
“The consequences will be tragic and long lasting, not only for the church in China but for the whole church because it damages the credibility,” he added.
The Vatican said that, as part of the deal, the pope would recognise seven Chinese bishops who were appointed by Beijing without the Vatican’s approval, and were excommunicated as illegitimate. Sources told Reuters the accord gave the Vatican a say in the naming of bishops and granted the pope veto power over candidates. China’s Catholics are split between an underground church swearing loyalty to the Vatican, and the state-supervised Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA).
The possibility of such a deal has divided Catholics across China, some of whom fear greater suppression should the Vatican cede more control to Beijing. Others want to see rapprochement and avoid a potential schism.
Greg Burke, director of the Holy See press office, acknowledged there was work to be done to reassure those who have opposed the agreement. “This is not the end of a process. It’s the beginning. This has been about dialogue, patient listening on both sides even when people come from very different standpoints. The objective 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, recognised by Chinese authorities.”
The deal has been done amid a crackdown by the Chinese regime on Christians and followers of other faiths in recent years. Churches have been closed down; crosses and other religious symbols have been removed.
President Xi Jinping introduced a programme to “Sinicise” all religious practice, insisting that it must be “Chinese in orientation”. The government must “provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society”, he said.
The explosion of Christianity in the country has mainly been seen in Protestant evangelical churches. Catholicism is a relatively minor religion, with an estimated 10-12 million adherents.
They are supposed to worship only in churches approved by the CPA, a state-controlled body. But many attend unregistered churches under the authority of bishops who are not recognised by the Chinese authorities.
The Vatican has been keen to re-create ties with Beijing ever since the Communist authorities broke off diplomatic relations in 1951. Pope Francis has vigorously pursued rapprochementwith the rising superpower.
He has sent gifts to Xi, his homilies have been translated into Chinese, and last year the Vatican dispatched 40 artworks to Beijing in a cultural exchange which, according to a senior Chinese official, signalled the “strong commitment for the development of civil relations” between the two.
Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington who resigned as a cardinal in July after facing allegations of sexual abuse, has been a regular envoy from the Vatican to Beijing, according to the Catholic News Agency.
A sign of Francis’s eagerness to curry favour with the Chinese has been his refusal to meet the Dalai Lama, knowing such an encounter would anger Beijing. The thaw between the two powers has come under fire from some in the church. Two years ago, Cardinal Zen said a rapprochement would be “betraying Jesus Christ” and a “surrender”.