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China-Vatican relations

Is there still hope for resurrection of China-Vatican ties? I won’t live long enough to see it, priest says

Areas of disagreement in deal over bishops mean it is unlikely to lead to restoration of full diplomatic ties

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 9:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 7:37pm

The prospect of an imminent deal on how to appoint bishops in China is unlikely to swiftly lead to the restoration of diplomatic ties between Beijing and the Vatican, according to analysts and observers.

Several other thorny issues on how Catholic churches are controlled by the state need to be resolved before the two sides can normalise ties after a decades-long split and this could take years, they said.

The appointment of bishops has been one of the main sources of contention between the two sides, with Beijing saying it must have a full say in the decisions made by the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Church.

Sources in mainland China and Hong Kong have suggested a compromise deal could be announced as early as this month.

Catholics can only legally practise their religion in mainland China in state-sanctioned churches, which are not overseen by the Vatican, and under the current system bishops are appointed by Beijing rather than the Pope.

China detains ‘underground’ Catholic bishop: sources

However, other issues still remain, including whether about 30 “underground” Catholic bishops already approved by the Vatican, but not sanctioned by Beijing will be formally recognised by the Chinese authorities in the future.

The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was established in 1957 to ensure state- sanctioned churches toe the Communist Party line, with the state-controlled Bishop Conference of the Catholic Church in China selecting and appointing its clerics.

Most appointments have quietly received recognition from the Vatican over the years, but the Holy See has intervened and excommunicated seven who it deemed to be “illicitly ordained”.

Father Pedro (not his real name), who leads a state-approved church, told the South China Morning Post: “I’m not bluffing. I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see [formalising diplomatic ties] happen, not in this lifetime. There are too many obstacles.Is Beijing really ready to let go its grip and talk sincerely with the Vatican?”

About 10 million Catholics worship in state-controlled churches in China or in unauthorised “underground” congregations. After Beijing severed ties with the Vatican in 1951, churches were closed and clerics persecuted as Beijing forced them to break their allegiance to the Pope.

Professor Tou Chou-seng, an academic at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan and the island’s former ambassador to the Vatican, said Beijing and the Holy See hoped a compromise over bishop appointments would ultimately lead to a normalisation in their relationship, but there was still a long way to go.

China, Vatican talks on bishops ‘in full swing’, Chinese official says

“Resolving conflicts over bishop ordination is the first step, but it doesn’t put things right once and for all,” said Tou.

“Historically it’s always been a long walk from reaching a bishop ordination agreement to ties being formalised,” he said, citing previous examples with the communist authorities in the former Soviet Union and Vietnam.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited the Holy See in 1989 vowing to build full diplomatic ties, but this was not realised until 10 years later in Russia, Tou said.

The Vietnamese premier Nguyen Tan Dung saw former Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 expressing Hanoi’s wish to build full ties with the Vatican, but they have yet to be established.

“Note that their relationships were already less complicated than that of China and the Vatican, without the issues of the Patriotic Association and underground church being in the way,” said Tou.

He added that increased numbers of underground Catholic churches in China would be more open after any agreement on the appointment of bishops was signed between Beijing and Rome, but a critical indication of the success of the deal was whether it would lead to greater religious freedom.

“If they are continuously treated unfairly after going public, the Holy See would certainly feel apologetic to the underground church,” Tou said.

The Vatican should work with Beijing to unify Catholics in China

Professor Zhu Xiaohong, a religious studies expert at Fudan University in Shanghai , said she saw no sense of urgency from Beijing to normalise ties with the Vatican.

“It’s easy to sign a deal on how to appoint bishops in the future, but this will only remain a deal if real problems can be addressed,” she said.

“They have only just begun negotiating the fate of the seven excommunicated bishops. There are 30 other underground ones to go. What is the rush [in building full diplomatic ties]?” said Zhu. “The issue of the Patriotic Association must also be addressed. Catholicism is about community and communion. If both sides continue to procrastinate, no good will come to the church’s solidarity in future.”

An agreement on how to appoint bishops is the first of many hurdles for Beijing and the Vatican to overcome before a rapprochement can be reached. These are some of the other key issues that need to be addressed.

1. While the Pope is expected to have final say over appointing bishops, the pool of candidates is expected to be controlled by Beijing. But who will have ultimate authority in the case of a dispute?

2. Will underground churches be forced to stop holding unauthorised gatherings and join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association,?as well as submit to management by the government?

3. Will Beijing insist on keeping tight control over churches? And will the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association continue its role in making sure clerics toe the Communist Party line?

4. Will Beijing stop persecuting clerics, and release bishops and priests who have been jailed, disappeared or are incommunicado?

5. Can an agreement on bishops ease tensions over religious freedom given that China introduced a regulation in February strengthening its grip over officially sanctioned religious bodies, and making unauthorised gatherings more difficult?