China-Vatican relations
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Pope Francis is keen to renew the deal. Photo: AP

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

  • Pope Francis has said he wants the landmark 2018 agreement on the appointment of bishops to continue despite accusations it betrayed those who stayed faithful to Rome
  • China’s Catholics are currently divided between a state-sanctioned church and an underground one
A 2018 agreement between China and the Vatican on the appointment of bishops will expire later this month, and while Pope Francis is eager to renew the pact Beijing has yet to publicly express its intentions.

The agreement was designed to end a schism among China’s 12 million Catholics, who are fairly evenly split between a so-called underground church that remains loyal to the Vatican and those who attend state-sanctioned churches.

China broke diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951, expelling missionaries, demolishing churches and jailing those who still looked to Rome for leadership.

Beijing then set up its own church, controlled by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and insisted it had the right to ordain bishops without papal approval.

Chinese bishop resigns before renewal of Beijing-Vatican deal

At least seven bishops who were excommunicated for being ordained without the Vatican’s approval were readmitted to the fold as a gesture of reconciliation soon before the agreement was signed.

What is the agreement between China and the Catholic church?

Under the groundbreaking accord, whose exact contents remain secret, Beijing recognised the Pope as head of the Catholic Church, including in China, for the first time. The pontiff was also given the final say in the selection of bishops from a pool of candidates nominated by the government and state-sanctioned church.

The agreement signalled a breakthrough as it was the communist state’s first indication that it was ready to share some authority over China’s Catholics with the Pope.

The two-year provisional deal, signed in September 2018, followed decades of extensive negotiations between the Vatican and Beijing.

Pope Francis also made compromises by asking two of the Vatican-approved bishops to make way for two of the previously excommunicated bishops from the state-sanctioned church before the agreement was signed.

Why is the deal controversial?

A number of bishops and cardinals have publicly criticised Rome for betraying the interests of the underground church by compromising on major principles.

The deal has been attacked for betraying those who remained loyal to the Vatican. Photo: AFP
Many members of the underground clergy have served jail terms for remaining loyal to the Vatican and critics such as Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun have accused the Pope of “selling them out”.

There has been little apparent progress on other disagreements between the two sides since the agreement was signed, but the Holy See has defended its policies saying they are necessary steps to improve religious freedoms.

What is the US involvement?

Washington has been one of the fiercest opponents of renewing the agreement, citing China’s poor record on human rights and religious freedom.

Vatican seeks to extend bishops deal with Beijing that has brought ‘positive, despite limited’ results

Last month Pope Francis cancelled a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Rome after he called on the Vatican to take a tougher stance on China.

What is the state of China-Vatican relations today?

In July, a Vatican official told the South China Morning Post in July that 52 dioceses had been left waiting for a bishop to be appointed.

Meanwhile Rome is waiting for 23 bishops chosen by the Vatican to be recognised by Beijing under a process that requires the former members of the underground clergy to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and make a pledge of loyalty to the party leadership.

The Holy See hopes the agreement will be extended to allow the dialogue between the two sides to continue, but has been frustrated by a lack of progress and reciprocal measures from Beijing.

Meanwhile, the church faithful are still subject to arrest and persecution. Augustine Cui Tai, the underground bishop of Xuanhua in Hebei province, was detained last month and his current whereabouts are unknown, while Shanghai bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin is being held under partial house arrest in the city’s Sheshan Seminary.

Other underground clerics have been missing for far longer and their fates remain unknown, including the bishop of Baoding, James Su Zhimin, who was last seen almost 20 years ago.