(Left: CNS photo/Vatican Media; Right: CNS photo/Luong Thai Linh, Pool via Reuters)
The Holy See will communicate to representatives of the Chinese government a proposal approved by Pope Francis for the renewal of the provisional agreement with China.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state and a key figure in the dialogue with China, responding to journalists’ questions on Sept. 14, confirmed the Vatican’s intention to extend the provisional agreement for “at least 2 years” and “in that way to verify its usefulness for the church in China.” He said he thinks and hopes China wants this too.
Sources contacted by America
, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the press, also expect an extension of the provisional agreement because they believe it is practical for both sides.
While Vatican officials have thus far publicly defended the agreement
with enthusiasm, privately, they are more sober in their analysis. In several conversations, they have acknowledged the obstacles and challenges that remain while expressing hope for future talks.
From the Vatican’s perspective, the agreement is functional because it has opened a way to engage in a direct dialogue with China not only on the nomination of bishops but on other questions like the normalization of the life of the church in China and, in due course, to diplomatic relations with China, something that has been severed since 1951.
From the Chinese perspective, the agreement can be seen as facilitating the official registration of all Catholic bishops, priests and communities, including those of the so-called underground community, which according to some estimates account for almost half of the country’s 10 million Catholics. China moreover sees that it stands to gain in international reputation from a positive relation with the Holy See and Pope Francis; particularly at this moment in history when opposition to, and distrust of China is growing in many countries, including the United States, because of its crackdown on Hong Kong, its repression of the Uighurs and its initial handling of information regarding coronavirus. Notably, Pope Francis and the Holy See have been silent on these issues of human rights and international law.
To this day, the text of the provisional agreement has been kept secret, much to the chagrin of many Chinese Catholics who say the secrecy allows the Chinese authorities to claim that bishops and priests must obey their instructions because the Vatican agrees with Beijing.
has learned that China insisted on the secrecy and the Vatican acquiesced perhaps because, as one source remarked, “while it’s not a good agreement, it’s better than no agreement, and there’s hope it can be improved.”
The agreement only concerns the nomination of bishops. It does not did not deal with other important questions that the Vatican wished to address, but the Chinese side refused to discuss prior to the signing. It does not address the question of the underground bishops and priests; the status of the Chinese bishops’ conference, which is not recognized by Rome because only state-recognized bishops belong to it or the number of dioceses on the mainland.
Vatican sources describe the Holy See’s relations with Beijing as “cordial” and more friendly since the signing of the agreement. They note “a changing attitude” on the part of the Chinese. Nevertheless, they acknowledge that there have been tensions and problems continue to exist.
At the time of the agreement’s signing, a crackdown on religion was already underway in China as Beijing demanded that all bishops and priests be officially registered with the Patriotic Association. Pressure was being put at the local level, though more forcibly in some provinces than others.
A Vatican source reminded America
that “there is not just one China,” referring to the different political realities at provincial level and how the church’s relation with the authorities varied from province to province following the agreement. It has improved in some, not changed in others, but deteriorated in a number of places.
Overall, the concrete fruits of the agreement are still meager when it comes to nomination of bishops, as Vatican officials admit. Only two new bishops have been ordained since the agreement was signed, but their nominations were already agreed before Sept. 2018.
has learned that three more bishops will soon be ordained, but this is a small number given the more than 40 dioceses that lack a bishop. Nevertheless, although the agreement did not address the situation of the “underground” bishops, seven have been recognized by the state over the past two years.
In the absence of diplomatic relations, the Holy See has long sought to open an office in Beijing with a permanent representative there to facilitate communications with the authorities and the local church, as has happened with Vietnam, but so far China has refused.
Vatican officials recognize that China has the upper hand in the negotiations. Prior to the signing of the agreement one official told me, “they have the knife in the hand,” meaning if the Holy See had not signed, then China could simply go ahead and appoint bishops to some 40 dioceses and thereby greatly compromise the church’s future in a country where it has existed for centuries.
The signing has given rise to some positive fruits, nonetheless. First, the dialogue continues, and in a more positive spirit. The Chinese embassy to Italy serves as a channel for ongoing communication.
Second, official delegations from both sides meet once or twice annually, at the deputy-foreign minister level, either at the Vatican or in Beijing. The next meeting is to be in Rome and was expected to formalize the extension of the provisional agreement, but no date has been set because of Covid-19 travel restrictions.
In addition to these official encounters, there is also a joint working group that meets with some regularity. It most recently met in Beijing last November. On that occasion, the Chinese allowed Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the head of the Vatican delegation, to celebrate Mass in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, the first time a Vatican bishop has been permitted to do so since 1949.
If China were to pursue the diplomatic ladder approach with the Holy See, the next logical step would be a meeting between its prime minister, Li Keqiang, and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, who has long played a key role in the China-Vatican dialogue.
Such an encounter could pave the way to the establishment of diplomatic relations, but China would require the Holy See to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan at that same time. Neither question has been broached so far in the bilateral negotiations, according to Vatican sources.
However, the Holy See has been ready for that eventuality since the pontificate of St. John Paul II. As Cardinal Angelo Sodano, then secretary of state, told journalists in 1999, the Vatican is ready to move its embassy from Taipei to Beijing “not tomorrow, but tonight if the Chinese authorities allow it.”
If the provisional agreement is extended for another two years, as is expected, then some headway may be made on the many unresolved questions that remain. But it is difficult to predict where progress may come or how soon.