The Holy See is preparing to renew its 2018 deal with China which it says has delivered positive results in ensuring the pastoral care of Chinese Catholics in the communist-run country.
In an editorial, published in Vatican News and L'Osservatore Romano, Andrea Tornielli sets out the reasons for the two year provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops, which expires on 24 October.
“Its objective is to permit the Catholic faithful to have bishops in full communion with the Successor of Peter who are at the same time recognised by the authorities of the People’s Republic of China,” writes Tornielli, who is the Vatican’s editorial director.
“The results have been positive, although limited, and suggest going forward with the application of the agreement for another determined period of time.”
A Vatican delegation is expected to travel to Beijing in the coming days for talks about extending the agreement, and Tornielli says that a decision is expected “by October”.
The Holy See has faced criticism over its deal with China, including human rights groups who argue Pope Francis should stand up to Beijing over mass arbitrary detentions of Uyghur Muslims, while Lord Patten of Barnes, the former Governor of Hong Kong and a prominent Catholic, argues the Vatican could be making a “serious misjudgment.”
The harshest criticism has come from United States’ Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who wrote an article in First Things – a media outlet which is hostile to the Francis pontificate – arguing that the Vatican risks endangering its moral authority if it extends the deal. His intervention took the Holy See by surprise, and has placed a strain on relations between the Vatican and the White House.
Although the Holy See made no official comment in response to the article, the 29 September editorial was released on the day that Pompeo arrived in Rome for a visit where he will meet his opposite number, Cardinal Pietro Paolin, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican foreign minister.
Secretary Pompeo has, however, been refused a meeting with the Pope on the grounds that it is too close to the US presidential elections. Unofficially his public criticism of the Vatican-China accord was a factor in the decision and since the First Things article Pompeo has shifted his tone stressing that the Church “has an enormous amount of moral authority".
For its part, the Vatican is determined to resist outside pressure and is forging its own relationship with China. Cardinal Parolin says he wants to extend the deal, explaining recently that “a direction has been marked out that is worth continuing.” Beijing, meanwhile, has said the agreement has been successfully implemented.
Although officials in the Vatican admit the deal is not perfect, it has allowed for some normalisation of the Chinese Catholic Church, which has for decades been split between the underground Catholics, who refused co-operation with the government, and the state run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Those divisions led to bishops being ordained without papal approval, placing them outside of communion with Rome, and dividing the Catholic community. The new deal led to all those bishops ordained without papal mandate brought back into communion, something Francis’ recent predecessors had tried to achieve. Tornielli explains that in the last two years, there have been new episcopal appointments made with Rome’s agreement, some of which have been recognised by the Government authorities.
The details of the Vatican-China agreement, signed on 22 September 2018, have never been published, a decision that has been criticised. It is widely understood that the deal gives Beijing authorities the power to draw up the shortlist of bishops, while the Pope is able to exercise a veto. The decision not to make the contents of the agreement public was reportedly requested by Beijing.
One priest serving in China said the Vatican-China agreement is bearing fruit.
“Everyone has seen the visible results regarding the bishops in China: no more illicit and underground ordinations,” Fr Paul Han SVD, a priest working at a seminary in Hebei province, explained in a reflection on Sino-Vatican relations, sent to The Tablet.
“Bishops in China are now able to come together more often in collaboration and consultation with each other in solving some Church issues. They can grow in friendship and fraternal encouragement. This in turn will be beneficial to both the communion among them and the whole Church. Isn’t this the key objective of the Sino-Vatican Provisional Agreement on Bishop’s appointment?”
He added that the “Vatican is no more an ally of the Western and North American bloc, but a moral and spiritual leadership of a truly Universal Church” which is “concerned for the well-being of the entire world and all humanity, not political ideology and a preferable government ruled by a particular party.” He added that the Chinese government must have sensed a change in the Vatican, “especially when they realised that the Holy See and Pope Francis are being constantly mocked and attacked for being friendly to them!”
China broke off relations in 1951, and since then various Popes have made efforts to re-establish ties. On 14 February 2020, in Munich, Archbishop Gallagher met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the highest level meeting between representatives of the Vatican and Beijing since 1949. The 2018 deal is the first agreement signed between the two states since relations were severed.