The “provisional agreement” was signed Saturday in Beijing by Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, the Holy See’s undersecretary for relations with states, and Wang Chao, China’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, the Vatican said in a statement.
Details of the agreement weren’t made public, but people familiar with the matter ahead of the signing said that it allows the pope to veto new nominees for bishops proposed by the Chinese government.
“This is not the end of a process. It’s the beginning,” said the Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, in a statement. “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 recognized by Chinese authorities.”
China’s foreign ministry released a brief statement, affirming that “China and the Vatican will continue to maintain communications, to push forward the continued improvement of bilateral relations.”
The controversial deal constitutes the first official recognition by the Communist government that the pope is the head of the Catholic Church in China.
But the agreement also means that the Vatican will no longer approve the ordination of bishops in China without Beijing’s permission, meaning that all new leaders of the Catholic hierarchy there will be men acceptable to an avowedly atheist government.
Coming amid an intensified government crackdown on Christians and other religious groups in China, the deal has thus drawn protests, including from some Catholics there, that it represents a defeat for the principle of religious freedom.
On Saturday, Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong and vociferous critic of the Vatican’s rapprochement with Beijing who has denounced the imminent deal as a betrayal of Chinese Catholics, complained of the lack of detail on the deal. “The government can tell the Catholics: ‘Obey to us! We are in agreement with your pope!’” the cardinal said in a statement. “Trust, accept and obey without knowing what to accept, what to obey?”
For Beijing, the agreement is a boost to its image as the Communist party pursues a campaign to bring Catholicism and other faiths under its control.
It is also a step toward resumption of diplomatic relations with the Vatican, which Beijing broke off in 1951, and hence part of an intensifying campaign for the isolation of Taiwan, a democratic, self-ruled island that Beijing considers a renegade province. The Holy See is the most prestigious of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners, which now number only 17 after Beijing peeled off three others this year.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that it had received the Vatican’s assurance that the agreement on bishops “will not affect the diplomatic relationship” between Taipei and the Holy See.
Some Chinese officials worry that the deal sets a dangerous precedent by giving a foreign organization a measure of power over religious affairs in China. They fear that it could encourage other religious groups in China—including Protestants, Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists—to seek greater integration with global religious bodies.
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China’s estimated 10 million Catholics are legally supposed to worship only in churches approved by the state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, but many Catholics attend unregistered churches in so-called underground communities led by bishops loyal only to Rome. Pope Francis’ pursuit of the deal has largely reflected his desire to end divisions between those two groups.
In a statement on the agreement, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, said the pope was calling on Catholics in China to “make concrete gestures of reconciliation among themselves, and so overcome past misunderstandings, past tensions, even recent ones.”
Although the Vatican and Beijing have cooperated informally to agree on most appointments of bishops in recent decades, the government has periodically named bishops without the pope’s approval. China had been threatening to restart unilateral appointments of state-backed bishops, placing pressure on the Vatican to come to an agreement.
Beijing’s major condition for the agreement was that the pope recognize seven excommunicated Chinese bishops who had been appointed without Vatican approval over the years. On Saturday, the Vatican announced that the pope had fulfilled the requirement.
In two of the seven cases, government-backed bishops are to take the place of bishops who have shunned government control—the first time the Vatican has asked so-called underground bishops to step aside for this purpose.
“Today, for the first time, all the bishops in China are in communion with the bishop of Rome, with the successor of Peter,” Cardinal Parolin said.
People familiar with the matter said ahead of the signing that the provisional agreement allows for the possibility of revisions after one or two years if either party sees the need.
Wang Meixiu, a professor and expert on Sino-Vatican relations at the state-affiliated Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the deal was a landmark for China’s government, as it was a recognition that the Catholic church in China was part of the universal church.
“It no longer holds the old slogan that China church affairs are the sovereignty of the state,” she said.
But she said it remained to be seen how the deal would affect the lives of Chinese Catholics.
Among the important unknown details about the agreement are whether the pope will have a choice of nominees or merely a right of veto over a single candidate at a time; and how thoroughly the Vatican will be able to vet bishop candidates ahead of time.
The agreement also leaves unresolved the fate of some 30 so-called underground bishops recognized by the Vatican but not by China.
Another complication is a major discrepancy in the number of dioceses recognized by the two sides. The Vatican tallied 144 Catholic dioceses in the country by the end of 2017, while the Chinese government’s count was only 96, according to the Holy Spirit Study Center. On Saturday, the Vatican announced that the pope was recognizing a new diocese Chengde, which the Chinese government had established in 2010 for excommunicated Bishop Guo Jincai, one of the seven newly recognized. That would bring the Vatican’s count to 145. It is unclear whether Beijing will nominate bishops to lead the dioceses it hasn’t recognized till now.
—Chunying Zhang contributed to this article.
Source : WSJ