China-Vatican relations

Vatican signs historic deal with China on bishop appointments

Pope Francis hopes move ‘will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics’, Holy See says in a statement

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 September, 2018, 6:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 September, 2018, 11:24pm

China and the Vatican have reached a historic agreement on the appointment of Chinese bishops, with Pope Francis recognising seven clerics ordained by Beijing without the approval of the Holy See in a move that could help ease tensions in a decades-old dispute.

The Vatican said the “provisional” deal, which is concerned with how bishops are appointed in China, was “not political but pastoral”.

The two countries severed diplomatic ties in 1951, two years after the founding of the communist People’s Republic.

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“Pope Francis hopes that, with these decisions, a new process may begin that will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics,” the Vatican said in a statement.

“With a view to sustaining the proclamation of the Gospel in China, the Holy Father Pope Francis has decided to readmit to full ecclesial communion the remaining ‘official’ Bishops, ordained without Pontifical Mandate,” it said.

In return, Beijing would recognise some, though not all, of the bishops previously appointed by the Holy See, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Those not recognised might be so at a future date, the person said.

Neither side has made public the full text of the agreement.

China’s foreign ministry said in a brief statement that the two sides would continue to hold talks to maintain the progress made in their relationship.

“China and the Vatican will continue with their communication to promote advancement and progress in bilateral relations,” it said.

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The agreement was signed after a meeting between Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, the Vatican’s undersecretary for relations with states, and Wang Chao, China’s vice-minister for foreign affairs.

The Vatican said in its statement that the deal had been reached “following a long process of careful negotiation and foresees the possibility of periodic reviews of its application”.

“It concerns the nomination of bishops, a question of great importance for the life of the Church, and creates the conditions for greater collaboration,” according to the Vatican’s statement.

Wang Meixiu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, an official think tank, called the deal “epoch making” and said it could help to normalise relations between the Holy See and China.

“This is the first time the Chinese government has recognised the status of the Pope within the Chinese church, and the Chinese Catholic Church as part of the universal church,” she said.

The deal, however, has angered bishops and scholars critical of Beijing’s controls on religion, including Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen, the most senior Catholic cleric on Chinese soil, who said earlier he believed the two sides were making a “secret deal”.

On Saturday, he slammed the deal’s lack of transparency, questioning why neither side had made the details public, and why it had been described as “provisional”.

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But Francesco Sisci, an Italian sinologist and researcher at Renmin University in Beijing, said the Holy See had consulted all bishops in China before the deal.

“Many people outside China will say Beijing has not delivered on its promises, and that the Vatican has been cheated, but all bishops in China are in favour of the deal,” he said.

“The effects will be long-term. It’s positive that the Vatican will have a presence in China, and that China is willing to engage with the world on different levels.”

China has an estimated 12 million Catholics, divided between a government-run association whose clergy are chosen by the Communist Party and an unofficial church that swears allegiance to the Vatican. Of the 101 bishops working in the country at the end of December, 65 belonged to the former and 36 to the latter.

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Meanwhile, Taiwan said on Saturday that the new deal on bishops would not affect its ties with the Holy See.

The Vatican is Taiwan’s only diplomatic ally in Europe, while the self-ruled island has seen three countries switch their allegiance from Taipei to Beijing in the past two years.

“It will not affect relations between Taiwan and the Vatican, which have reached their 76th anniversary,” Taiwan’s foreign ministry said in a statement, adding that it hoped the deal could help the Holy See facilitate religious freedom in mainland China.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke played down any suggestions that the accord would have wider political implications, even though it marked a breakthrough on an issue that has bedevilled relations with China for years.

The agreement “is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognised by Chinese authorities”, he said.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse