In a controversial diplomatic accord with likely ramifications for Catholics in China's underground Church, the…
With progress in mind, the Holy See takes a calculated risk in China
On Thursday, two years to the day that the Holy See and China signed an agreement allowing the pope to approve bishops in the country, the sides officially renewed the pact before it was set to expire.
In a statement announcing the renewal, the Vatican said: “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 agreement is not the end of the troubles for Catholics in China, and it is not the beginning of religious freedom in China. It is a compromise, harshly disputed by many and celebrated with too much enthusiasm by others. And it is not a win-win situation. It costs the Vatican more than it does Beijing. However, I wonder if the Holy See had renounced the agreement, what would happen to Catholics in China?
“We hope that the Church in China can rediscover, thanks to this accord, its unity, and that through this unity it can become an instrument to spread the Gospel in Chinese society and work to help see authentic development for all the country’s people,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, said Wednesday, echoing his comments from earlier in the month. While speaking in Milan at an Oct. 3 symposium marking 150 years of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions’ presence in China, Cardinal Parolin stated that Pope Francis intended to continue on the path of dialogue with China. The cardinal acknowledged also that the agreement is a starting point, not an end point, and that it did not solve all issues on the table.
What the agreement does
With the agreement, Beijing has acknowledged that the pope in Rome, an authority outside its control, has the right to nominate bishops serving in China. This is the first positive achievement reached with the agreement, and it’s a remarkable one. Never before have Chinese authorities recognized a supreme religious authority outside of its territory and its direct dominion.
In September 2018, before the agreement, the pope had welcomed into full communion seven illegitimate bishops (plus a deceased one!) and forgave those who, among the seven, were excommunicated. For the first time since 1958, all the bishops in China — their number is currently 100 — are in communion with the universal Church. This is certainly a historical result and the second most positive aspect of the agreement. In this way, the Body of Christ in China is preserved by the risk of a schism and safeguarded against more illegitimate episcopal ordinations, which was an ecclesial misfortune of the last decades.
However, Chinese authorities were not as generous as the pope, and they have not yet allowed 30 “underground” bishops to work in freedom. This is why I consider the agreement asymmetrical.
If the pope can nominate bishops in China, he still cannot choose them. The bishops, I believe, are selected through a “democratic election” — a complex procedure in place for 40 years or so. The pope is given a name, and he appoints him. Of course, the pope must have the right to refuse a candidate that he dislikes. If the pope objects, so I suppose, the process of democratic election starts again. It must be said that this procedure is a departure from canon law and the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. I suspect that it will not result in the selection of the best candidates, but it would also avoid the worst ones as, at the end of the day, the pope must approve them.
Problems still exist
Pope Francis is personally involved in seeking the dialogue and the agreement with China. He wants to break the ice, make a fresh start after many missed opportunities, misunderstandings and past mistakes. He believes that only generous dialogue can achieve the desired results.
The agreement has raised complaints by observers and caused divisions within the Catholic community — in China and abroad. Catholics remain not free in China, and political authorities use the agreement to put pressure on bishops and clergy to accept the country’s religious policy. In the rest of the world, bishops have direct contact with the pope and can go to Rome; in China, that isn’t the case. Bishops are unable to meet freely and freely discuss their own agenda. Seminarians, priests, bishops and religious are called (or better, forced) to attend meetings where Communist Party officials impart political indoctrination. As before the agreement, they continue to remain subject to government officials and to compliance with China’s religious policy.
Even more gravely, the agreement was concluded after a severe tightening of restrictions on religious freedom. Eight months before the accord, on Feb. 1, 2018, China introduced new religious regulations that made the life of Catholics all the more difficult. Among other odious restrictions, one is particularly insidious: Minors cannot attend the Church and receive religious instruction.
In short, after two years, the agreement did not solve critical situations for the Catholic community, and religious freedom is far from being achieved.
A calculated risk
It seems to me that the Holy See paid a rather high price. What about the “prophetic role” of the Church? While the pope and the Holy See are explicit in denouncing human rights’ violations from all around the world, they do not speak on the sufferings of other religious communities in China, such as Buddhists in Tibet or Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. The Holy See is silent also on the recent oppressive measures against Mongol people in northern China and on the imposition of National Security Law on Hong Kong, which effectively suppressed the city’s popular movement for democracy.
For China, the accord might be an astute deception for gaining international prestige, as the recognition by the Holy See could lead to a decrease in criticism from countries around the world. Moreover, Beijing has made a shrewd political calculation furtherly isolating Taiwan, as the Holy See remains the only important international state to diplomatically recognize the breakaway Chinese island.
The Chinese Catholics respect and love the pope and accept the agreement out of loyalty, even if they do not approve it. This sentiment is shared, I believe, by the overwhelming majority of Catholics. A certain number of the faithful, perhaps a minority, consider the agreement a step toward greater religious freedoms and hope for positive outcomes in the future.
Part of the community views the agreement negatively. They consider it a failure — a betrayal after years of resistance, an unacceptable compromise with an oppressive regime and a discontinuation of the prophetic spirit of the Church.
In the last two years, I have written about the good aspects of the agreement, without denying its shortcomings, and hope that problems will be eased. Of course, I also dislike the unilateral narrative of Holy See’s great results in China, because this is not the case.
The Holy See considers dialogue as an option that might bring better results than direct confrontation. While the Vatican is not responsible for what happens in China, the agreement is an implicit recognition of the Chinese regime, which certainly it does not deserve. There is a risk that Beijing will use it to cover the gravity of its internal repressions. China is not a meek interlocutor: renouncing the agreement could trigger retaliation against Catholics and the elections of a large number of bishops without the Vatican’s approval.
Renewing the agreement is a difficult decision for the pope and his collaborators, starting with Cardinal Parolin. It is a calculated risk, certainly in good faith, and only history will say whether it will be for the best or for the worst.
Father Gianni Criveller of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions is dean of studies and a teacher at PIME International Missionary School of Theology in Milan, Italy. He taught in China for 27 years and is a lecturer in mission theology and the history of Christianity in China at the Holy Spirit Seminary College of Philosophy and Theology in Hong Kong.