China and the Vatican renew controversial bishops deal after ‘good start’

Mimi Lau
·6-min read

China and the Vatican renewed an agreement on the appointment of bishops on Thursday that critics say has done little to improve relations between the two sides.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian confirmed the deal would be extended for two more years, saying the Vatican and China would maintain close dialogue and work to improve ties.

The Holy See also announced the move, saying that the “initial application [of the agreement] has been positive, thanks to the good communication and cooperation between the parties”.

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Church sources said the deal was renewed via an exchange of diplomatic notes and there was no in-person signing ceremony organised because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The renewal has been mired in controversy, with the Holy See under pressure from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others to withdraw from the deal because of China’s human rights record and repressive policies against religions.

Signed in 2018, the provisional agreement was hailed as a breakthrough in relations between China and the Vatican after diplomatic ties broke off in 1951. The Holy See hoped that the pact would end a schism that affects around 12 million Catholics in mainland China who are split between an “underground” church that looks to the Pope for authority, and state-run churches controlled by Beijing’s Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

The agreement – details of which have not been made public – put an official end to Beijing appointing bishops without papal approval while allowing the head of a foreign religious organisation to have a say in the selection of Catholic leaders in the country.

But observers say limited progress has been made since the deal was struck, and that reports of Catholics and members of the clergy being persecuted in China have continued.

Explaining the decision to renew the agreement, the Holy See acknowledged that initial results of the agreement “may not seem to be that great”. “Nevertheless they represent a good start, in the hope that other positive goals might be progressively reached,” the statement said.

It noted that two bishops – Antonio Yao Shun from Jining diocese in Inner Mongolia and Stefano Xu Hongwei of Hanzhong diocese in Shaanxi province – had been appointed and more appointments were in progress.

The statement also said there were “still many situations causing serious suffering” in China.

“The Holy See is very much aware of them, is taking them into account and does not fail to draw them to the attention of the Chinese government so that religious freedom might be truly exercised,” it said. “There is still a long and difficult road ahead.”

Vatican News, the Holy See information site, said that for the first time in many decades, “all of the bishops in China are in communion with the Bishop of Rome and, thanks to the implementation of the agreement, there will be no more illegitimate ordinations”.

Lawrence Reardon, an expert in Chinese politics at the University of New Hampshire, said ahead of the announcement that the deal indicated Beijing’s willingness to continue the experiment of sharing power with an outside religious organisation, even as it tightened policies on religion.

“That’s an impressive achievement at this point and again, it’s the first of many steps towards a reconciliation for both the official and unofficial Catholic churches [in China] and also between the official Catholic Church and the Vatican,” Reardon said. “The Vatican’s primary goal is to prevent a schismatic church [in China] and keep it unified no matter how long it takes.”

China’s deal with the Catholic Church: ‘sell-out’ or pathway to better relations?

Pope Francis has come under international pressure and even been criticised by his own cardinals, who say he betrayed the underground Catholic Church in seeking reconciliation with the government-controlled Catholic body. The Pope asked one bishop to retire and demoted another to make way for the two bishops chosen by Beijing, while at least seven bishops were readmitted to the fold after being excommunicated for being ordained without the Vatican’s approval.

Reardon said he was shocked to see Pompeo weighing in on the controversial agreement in what he called an attempt to organise “Catholic votes” in the November presidential election by focusing on the “China threat”.

“So what’s happening is that you see the Sino-Vatican relationship being pulled into internal American politics … but the Catholic vote in the US is not monolithic,” he said.

Pope Francis has been criticised by some of his own cardinals over the agreement. Photo: AFP
Pope Francis has been criticised by some of his own cardinals over the agreement. Photo: AFP

Reverend Lo Lung-kwong, a research fellow with Chinese University of Hong Kong’s school of divinity, said the renewal represented a “conservative and delicate” gesture from both sides.

“The controversial agreement has been renewed despite its limited progress as it continues to serve Beijing politically and Rome ecclesiastically,” Lo said.

“For Beijing, the threat that needs to be addressed remains the underground Catholic Church, which they see as an illegal but organised religious group backed by foreign authorities who remain legal among international peers,” he said. “For the Catholic Church, the agreement could help eliminate a 70-year-old schism in China.”

A priest in Hebei said the Vatican did not understand the plight of Catholics in China. Photo: AFP
A priest in Hebei said the Vatican did not understand the plight of Catholics in China. Photo: AFP

Francesco Sisci, an Italian sinologist with the Renmin University of China, said the renewed agreement would likely lead to more new bishops being chosen by Beijing and the Holy See, which would strengthen spiritual unity among Chinese Catholics.

“A very basic issue for the Catholics is to be in communion with the Pope, this is extremely important. There are more than 40 dioceses in China that are without bishops and many of the existing bishops are of very old age so there might be more than 100 new bishops that need to be appointed … this will enhance a close spiritual connection,” Sisci said.

But for some Chinese Catholics, the renewed deal is not a cause for optimism.

A priest with the biggest underground Catholic community on the mainland, in Hebei province, said he felt the Vatican did not understand the situation faced by the church in China.

“Life has not been easier for us [since the deal was struck], especially for those who worship in government-sanctioned churches,” said the priest, who asked to be identified as Pedro because of the sensitivity of the matter. “Many of my [seminary] classmates who are serving as priests in officially sanctioned churches are feeling more heat than we do, because government restrictions focus on those operating out in the open these days.”

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