Vatican and China renew provisional agreement on appointment of bishops

Chinese flag Credit Gang Liu Shutterstock CNA Chinese flag. | Gang Liu/Shutterstock

The Vatican and China have renewed a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops for two more years, the Holy See announced Thursday.

An Oct. 22 Vatican communique said that the Chinese government and Vatican authorities agreed "to extend the experimental implementation phase" of the two-year provisional agreement first signed on Sept. 22, 2018, concerning the nomination of bishops. It added that the two parties intended to pursue "an open and constructive dialogue."

"The Holy See considers the initial application of the agreement -- which is of great ecclesial and pastoral value -- to have been positive, thanks to good communication and cooperation between the parties on the matters agreed upon, and intends to pursue an open and constructive dialogue for the benefit of the life of the Catholic Church and the good of Chinese people," the communique said.

An article in L'Osservatore Romano Oct. 22 lauded the results of the agreement, saying that "processes for new episcopal appointments are underway, some at an early stage, others at an advanced stage."

It reported that two bishops had already been appointed under the "regulatory framework established by the agreement": Bishop Antonio Yao Shun, of Jining Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia, and Bishop Stefano Xu Hongwei, of Hanzhong in Shaanxi Province.

"It must be acknowledged that there are many situations of great suffering. The Holy See is deeply aware of this, takes it into account and does not fail to attract the attention of the Chinese government to encourage a more fruitful exercise of religious freedom. The path is still long and not without difficulties," the Vatican newspaper said.

Following the Vatican-China agreement in 2018, state officials in different regions of China removed crosses and demolished church buildings, and underground Catholics and clergy have reported harassment and detention. A 2020 report of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China found that Chinese Catholics suffered "increasing persecution" after the deal.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin told journalists Oct. 21 that he was "happy" with the agreement. But he acknowledged "there are also many other problems that the agreement was not intended to solve." 

The cardinal said that the goal of the agreement is "unity of the Church" and that through this unity "it will become an instrument of evangelization," according to a transcript provided by Italian newspaper Avvenire.

When asked about the persecution of Christians in China, Parolin responded: "But, what persecutions … You have to use the words correctly. There are regulations that are imposed and which concern all religions, and certainly also concern the Catholic Church."

In China, religious education of any person under the age of 18 is illegal. This means that catechism classes have been closed and minors are not allowed to enter church buildings. Catholic churches registered with the Chinese authorities are closely monitored via CCTV cameras connected to the public security network. Priests have been forced to attend government training courses.

The Chinese government continues to imprison Catholic clergy who refuse to support the Communist Party, according to a September report out of the province of Jiangxi.

But other religious groups have fared far worse under the Chinese Communist Party's policies of "sinicization" and technological control, particularly the Uyghur Muslims in China's Xinjiang province, who have suffered forced labor, indoctrination, sterilization, forced abortion, and torture in dentention camps.

While introducing more restrictive rules on religious practice, President Xi Jinping's repeatedly stated goal has been the "sinicization" of religions. The authorities have sought to diffuse "religious theories with Chinese character" into the five official religions supervised by the government, including the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. This has included instructing Chistian churches to remove images of the Ten Commandments and replace them with the sayings of Chairman Mao and Xi.

In March 2018, the Chinese government instituted a major change in its religious regulation by placing the management of religions, including Catholicism, under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party's United Front Work Department (UFWD). The United Front has the task of ensuring that groups outside of the CCP, such as Xinjiang Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Hong Kong democracy activists, and the Catholic Patriotic Association, are following the party line.

Xi Jinping has called the United Front Work Department one of his "magic weapons," used to co-opt and control.

Despite mounting international condemnation of China's internment of more than a million Uyghurs in detention camps, neither Pope Francis nor the Holy See has commented publicly on the situation.

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Cardinal Joseph Zen, the emeritus Bishop of Hong Kong, attributes this silence to the Vatican's ongoing diplomatic talks with the Chinese government.

"It seems that in order to save the agreement, the Holy See is closing both eyes on all the injustices that the Communist Party inflicts on the Chinese people," Zen wrote Oct. 7.

The Vatican-China agreement gave CCP officials a say in the ordination of bishops, but also allowed for the enforcement of "sinicization" in Church matters, Zen said. 

Cardinal Parolin has previously compared "sinicization'" to the Church's practice of "inculturation," saying in 2019 that "these two terms … refer to each other without confusion and without opposition."

In his most recent comments to journalists this week, Parolin said that the contents of the Sino-Vatican agreement would not be made public. But he added that what has been agreed to thus far "does not envisage the establishment of diplomatic relations."

"On both sides, as long as the agreement is ad experimentum [provisional], it was decided to keep the contents confidential," Parolin said, 

"For the moment there is no talk of diplomatic relations, we are focused on the Church," he said. "The agreement does not concern diplomatic relations nor does it envisage the establishment of diplomatic relations. The agreement concerns the situation of the Church, a specific point which are the appointments of bishops and the difficulties that exist and that we hope to tackle through dialogue."

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