Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The Vatican’s weak defense of the Rome-Beijing accord

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 27, 2022

Late last week Gianni Valente, the director of the Fides news agency, posted a strong defense of the Vatican’s secret agreement with Beijing. His statement was extraordinary in three respects.

First, although the editorial ran over 1,000 words, it did not mention the name of Cardinal Joseph Zen. A revered prelate of the Catholic Church was facing a criminal trial on spurious charges, and the director of the Vatican’s official news agency for the missionary Church did not did consider that outrage worth mentioning as he weighed the pros and cons (well, the pros, at least) of the secret agreement.

Second, since it is a secret agreement, the editorial cannot elaborate on the specifics of the accord, explaining that the Vatican has conceded and what Beijing has promised, so that readers might judge for themselves whether this pact represents a diplomatic success or failure.

In fact, Valente does not even tell us whether the Vatican-Beijing agreement (whatever it entails) will remain in effect beyond the next few weeks. The original agreement was reached in October 2018, for a two-year period. It was extended in October 2020 for another two years. So it is now due to lapse.

In a considerable understatement, Valente tells us that “public statements by Pope Francis and Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin have hinted at a positive intention on the part of the Holy See to continue the process of negotiation…” Top Vatican officials have more than “hinted at” their desire to extend the agreement; they have made it abundantly clear that the Vatican is looking for an extension. A Vatican negotiating team was in China in September, and when they returned, the Vatican News service reported that Cardinal Parolin “is convinced that the provisional agreement…will be renewed.” With the Vatican giving every indication of an anxious desire to extend the agreement, why would Fides hedge its bets?

One possible explanation, of course, could be a snag in the negotiations: a point of contention that could imperil the Vatican-Beijing accord. But no hint of any such problem can be found in the Fides editorial—or in any other statement coming forth from Rome. Cardinal Parolin told an Italian television audience that he was confident his Chinese counterparts were negotiating in good faith. And the Valente editorial describes the results of the existing accord in terms so glowing that opposition to its continuation seems unthinkable.

Yet there is strong opposition to an extension of the accord among loyal Catholics—beginning, notably, with Cardinal Zen. And the third remarkable feature of the Valente editorial is its refusal to acknowledge—much less rebut—that opposition.

The Fides statement is clearly designed to prepare public opinion for an extension. Recognizing that many Catholics are uneasy (at least) about Rome’s overtures to Beijing, Valente’s editorial is tackling the tricky task of answering critics without acknowledging their criticisms. Thus the complete silence on the most vulnerable point: the trial of Cardinal Zen.

Rather than responding to the embattled cardinal’s warnings about the Beijing government’s tight leash on religious freedoms, Valente chooses to focus on the positive results of the negotiations—which, he reminds us, has “the sole aim of entrusting the pastoral office to worthy and suitable bishops.” The purpose of the agreement is to ensure that all Catholic bishops in China are in communion with the Holy See.

In that regard the accord has unquestionably brought some advances. “Since the signing of the agreement,” Valente reminds us, “illegitimate episcopal ordinations have no longer occurred in China.” The regime has not installed its own favored bishops without consent from Rome. The Vatican has agreed to recognize some of those illicitly ordained bishops (who were previously under the ban of excommunication), and persuaded some “underground” bishops to relinquish their authority, making way for Beijing’s preferred prelates. As a result, “all the Chinese Catholic bishops in China today are in full and public communion with the Bishop of Rome.”

No small achievement, that. But at what price? The Vatican agreed to accept the bishops installed by Beijing; Beijing agreed to recognize some of the “underground” Catholic bishops who had been loyal to Rome but refused to accept those who would not recognize the authority of the government-backed Patriotic Association—a group whose purpose, Pope Benedict XVI had warned, cannot be reconciled with the teaching authority of the Church. Six “underground” bishops have been recognized by Beijing, and now can practice their ministry in public. But others remain underground, in some cases under house arrest.

In short the implementation of the agreement was a messy, painful affair. But now, after four years, things should be working more smoothly. Are they?

Valente observes that in the past, Chinese propaganda frequently lashed out at the bishops loyal to Rome as “the ‘watchdogs’ of Western imperialism.” Those attacks have ceased, he tells us; today “no one in China thinks of insulting the Pope and the Catholic Church as agents of hostile forces.” That, too, is undoubtedly a good thing—although a cynic might suggest that Beijing has no incentive to risk alienating a negotiating partner who is so anxious to oblige.

But what of the overall goal? Are we much closer to ensuring that all China’s Catholics live in dioceses governed by bishops in communion with Rome? Not really. Valente boasts: “In the last four years, six new Catholic episcopal ordinations have taken place in China,” with full Vatican approval. That comes to 1.5 episcopal ordinations in the average year. If the installation of new bishops continues at that rate over the next six years, it will not be enough to replace the seven bishops who are still leading dioceses although they are past the age of 85—to say nothing of the more than thirty Chinese dioceses that have no bishop at all.

To achieve its stated goal—a full Catholic hierarchy in communion with Rome—the Vatican-Beijing agreement would need to produce results at several times the current rate. Meanwhile the “underground” Church still faces sanctions, the Patriotic Association still issues orders, and the Vatican, fearful of upsetting the negotiations for a continuation of this questionable accord, remains silent as Cardinal Zen faces trial.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Cory - Oct. 02, 2022 12:47 AM ET USA

    Valente: "those attacks have ceased, he tells us; today “no one in China thinks of insulting the Pope and the Catholic Church as agents of hostile forces.” These days they don't insult the Pope as a hostile force because he isn't. He is a putty in their hands. He is of like mind as them. Meanwhile on with the persecution of faithful Catholics and the demolition of Churches. They must be hostile forces. They are right. Truth will always be hostile to the lie and the good hostile to evil.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Sep. 28, 2022 3:42 AM ET USA

    The top secret agreement very obviously does not intend to offer a remedy to the persecution of orthodox Catholics throughout China, nor restore the right to orthodox Catholic religious education for those under the age of 18.

  • Posted by: feedback - Sep. 27, 2022 2:08 PM ET USA

    Keeping the agreement secret strongly indicates that Francis doesn't trust the Catholic faithful to find it morally and theologically acceptable. Likely, for ample reasons. McCarrick's direct involvement in creating the agreement inspires no confidence.