China and Vatican extend temporary agreement on the appointment of Bishops

Pope Francis overlooking St. Peter’s Square. 
(Photo: Flickr)

(Vaticun/Beijing, Jingjinji Megalopolis—Oct. 27, 2020) On October 22, the Vatican News Room issued a 157-word announcement reporting that China and the Vatican agreed to extend the temporary agreement on the appointment of Bishops for another two years. More specific details regarding the agreement, however, remain secret at this time.

  • Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, spoke at a regular press conference that “China has decided to extend the agreement for another two years. Both sides will continue to keep close communication and negotiation, as well as continue to promote the process of improving the relationship.”
  • The United States expressed objections to this agreement. Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, issued a statement a few days ago that the Vatican would “endanger its own moral authority status” if it extended the agreement. 
  • The Vatican Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin (…powerful driving force in the Sino-Vatican relationship) defended that “the Sino-Vatican agreement is only about the appointment of bishops, it does not address other aspects of the Chinese church life at all, and it does not involve political issues.” 
  • Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, …the retired bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, stated that this agreement will provide a base for unqualified bishops to be appointed. This is not a “victory” of the Vatican but an actual “surrender.” 
  •  Professor Yang Fenggang, director of Center for Religions and Social Studies at Purdue University, commented that: “The Vatican may as well be used by Beijing as a life-saving straw” as a drowning man will even grasp a straw. 
  • Bishop Chen Rijun described this situation as: “The true church is dead.” …According to Bishop Chen Rijun, the reason behind these actions of the Holy See is Cardinal Palolin’s domination over every aspect of the Sino-Vatican relationship. Palolin insisted on Orientalism, that is, the priority of establishing a holy rule in communist countries. 

Numerous experts assert that China promotes dialogue with the Holy See to nudge the Vatican to discontinue diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. One of Xi Jinping’s major tasks for the next few years includes China regaining the rule over Taiwan. Some argue that Taiwan will be the last possible means of leverage for the Catholic Church to strive for China’s full religious freedom.

China’s crucial need for contract renewal appears much greater than that of the Vatican. To support China in maintaining her international status as a major power, the country needs to win over the Vatican, a very influential European country. It appears that the Sino-Vatican agreement may prove to be of great significance to the Holy See. Although the procedure appeared a bit ambiguous, the Pope could directly participate in appointing bishops, as the Chinese government allows all domestic bishops to recognize the authority of the Pope, including those official authorizations support, he retains the one to make the decision of the appointment of bishops.

China needs a minimum of 40 bishops. The agreement covers the appointment of bishops. Following the signing of the interim agreement, authorities detained and interviewed several bishops not recognized by the Chinese government. Not coincidentally, these included Bishop Jia Zhiguo from Zhengding, Hebei Province, and Bishop Shao Zhumin from Wenzhou. As Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities monitor official groups/churches, demolish church crosses, destroy churches buildings, ban religious education for minors under the age of 18, etc., and attack unofficial churches.   As CCP officials have expelled priests, destroyed cemeteries, and isolated bishops, cases of churches being closed have increased. 

Vatican representatives are reportedly urging government officials to monitor these violations of religious freedom. The Vatican has failed to include the subject of religious freedom into the agreement. Those missing bishops continue to be in a state of forced disappearance, and Beijing has not accounted for their whereabouts.

The previous Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis support diverse policies. Pope Francis did not modify the text of Benedict XVI’s policy; however, he led the church away from it. Pope Benedict XVI believed that Orientalism proved to be “a failure.” He stressed that “when the regime interferes with the beliefs and doctrines of the church inappropriately, we cannot give in.”

Pope Francis has requested that each bishop open the path of reconciliation. Challenges arise, however, as CCP authorities interfere in the management of church groups. In the case of Bishop Guo Xijin in Fujian Province, for example, in agreement with Pope Francis’s request, Bishop Guo accepted a demotion to auxiliary bishop. Nevertheless, as Bishop Guo declined to join the “Patriotic Church” organization, authorities have not recognized his position. For a time, Guo was expelled from the church. The Vatican has not been able to find a “good” way to protect Bishop Guo’s freedom nor that of the other 20 priests in the diocese.

Often, illegal bishops who divided the religion are “made orthodox” while those faithful bishops and believers who have been loyal to the Holy See for decades feel betrayed and abandoned. In addition, the Holy See currently remains silent regarding the CCP’s persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang, as well as government persecution of Hong Kong’s and China’s unofficial churches.

According to “The Evening Post,” one credible source reported that the confidential China-Vatican agreement, approximately 10 pages long, includes issues the two parties need to resolve through negotiation. The source stresses that the Holy See must remain vigilant about the division issues between the official and unofficial churches in China and include improved religious freedom as a consideration for renewal of the agreement on the appointment of Bishops.

Gao Jensai, ChinaAid Association Correspondent 

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