Headlines > Holy See and Beijing ‘on verge of deal' on bishops

02 February 2018 | by Christopher Lamb

Holy See and Beijing ‘on verge of deal' on bishops

Holy See and Beijing ‘on verge of deal' on bishops

An accord on the intractable issue of choosing bishops could be signed in a matter of months, sources say

The Vatican and China are reportedly on the verge of signing an agreement on the appointment of bishops, a move that could pave the way for an historic restoration of diplomatic relations between them. 

Sources quoted in the Wall Street Journal and Reuters say a framework accord on the until-now intractable issue of choosing bishops could be signed in a matter of months. 

The deal would require Pope Francis to lift the excommunications on seven bishops ordained for the state-run arm of the Chinese Catholic church but in exchange the Vatican will be given powers over how future bishops are appointed. 

The Catholic Church in China is currently divided between “underground” communities – whose first loyalty is to Rome – and those belonging to the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association, but the deal is aimed at bringing about a reconciliation.  

“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,” a source with knowledge of the plan told Reuters.

The appointment of bishops has been the major question of dispute in the Holy See’s attempt to restore full diplomatic relations with Beijing, which were broken off 70 years ago following the country’s cultural revolution.

All Catholic bishops are appointed by the Pope, and a bishop’s ordination without this permission results in automatic excommunication. In 2011, Benedict XVI excommunicated Bishop Huang Bingzhang following his appointment as a bishop in the Patriotic Association. But reports have now surfaced that the Vatican want him to replace Bishop Peter Zhuang, 88, although this could not happen without the excommunication being lifted. 

The Holy See’s overture to Beijing has resulted in fierce criticism by prominent Chinese prelate, Cardinal Joseph Zen, who accused the Vatican of selling out Chinese Catholics. Writing on Facebook and his personal website on Monday, the cardinal tried to suggest a division between the Pope and his aides on China. 

The Vatican hit back with a strong denial and in an interview with La Stampa, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Pope’s number two who is playing a crucial role in the China negotiations, said that “no personal point of view can be considered as an exclusive interpreter of what is good for Chinese Catholics”.  

The precise details of the deal between China and the Vatican over bishops are not yet known but are likely to see Beijing authorities playing some part in the selection process. A comparison that has been drawn is the power of veto over episcopal appointments that leaders of some communist countries had over appointments during the Cold War period. 

Once a deal with bishops is secured by the Vatican, then the restoration of diplomatic relations is likely to follow, a goal of Holy See diplomacy since 1951. 


China and the Vatican: Christopher Lamb looks behind the headlines on a Tablet Facebook Live 

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