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Vatican and Beijing renew secret agreement

October 22, 2020

The Holy See and the Chinese government announced on October 22 that they have agreed to a two-year extension of their secret agreement governing the appointment of Catholic bishops.

A Vatican statement announcing the renewal said:

The Holy See considers the initial application of the Agreement—which is of great ecclesial and pastoral value—to have been positive, thanks to good communication and cooperation between the Parties on the matters agreed upon, and intends to pursue an open and constructive dialogue for the benefit of the life of the Catholic Church and the good of Chinese people.

In renewing the accord, the Vatican Secretariat of State brushed aside concerns expressed by some Chinese Catholics that the agreement enabled Chinese Communist leaders to strengthen their control over the Church. Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired Bishop of Hong Kong, had been particularly outspoken in complaining that the Vatican was enhancing the power of state officials who were trampling on religious freedom.

The Vatican’s October 22 announcement emphasized that the agreement—the terms of which have not been made public—was not designed to address issues of religious-freedom. The main benefit of the agreement, the Vatican stated, was “restoring the full and visible unity of the Church” in China by providing for the appointment of bishops who would be recognized both by the Holy See and by the Beijing regime. In the past, the Chinese government has installed several bishops without Vatican approval; those bishops thereby incurred the automatic penalty of excommunication. Meanwhile Beijing has refused to recognize bishops of the “underground” Church that resisted government oversight.

”The question regarding the appointment of Bishops is of vital importance for the life of the Church, both at the local as well as at the universal levels,” the Vatican remarked in explaining the renewed agreement. The Vatican boasted:

As of today, for the first time after many decades, all of the Bishops in China are in communion with the Bishop of Rome and, thanks to the implementation of the Agreement, there will be no more illegitimate ordinations.

However, if the purpose of the accord was to ensure that Chinese Catholics would united under the leadership of bishops recognized by all parties, the fruits of the agreement have been meager. Father Bernardo Cervellera of the AsiaNews service pointed out that at least forty episcopal appointments were overdue in China, either because the see was vacant or because the bishop was well past normal retirement age. Yet since the original Vatican-Beijing accord was signed in 2018, he notes, not a single new bishop has been appointed. (Two bishops have been installed, by mutual consent of Beijing and Rome, but Father Cervellera reports that “the two appointments had both been decided many years earlier.”)

Further, in order to secure the agreement, the Vatican agreed to lift the excommunications of bishops who had been illicitly installed by the Communist regime, and even to persuade loyal bishops to step down, allowing the government’s choices to take their places. Father Cervellera remarks, “One negative fruit of the agreement was the haste with which the Vatican lifted the excommunication of seven bishops, without them having made any gesture of contrition towards their communities.”

The October 22 Vatican statement grudgingly acknowledged concerns about restrictions on religious freedom in China, but said that these concerns were secondary to the need for Church unity: “Recalling that the Agreement exclusively concerns the appointment of Bishops, Cardinal Parolin stated he is aware of the existence of various problems regarding the life of the Catholic Church in China, but also that it is impossible to confront all the issues together.”

The statement went on to say that Vatican diplomats would continue to press Beijing to ease restrictions on the Church:

It must be acknowledged that there are still many situations causing serious suffering. The Holy See is very much aware of them, is taking them into account and does not fail to draw them to the attention of the Chinese government so that religious freedom might be truly exercised. There is still a long and difficult road ahead.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had pressed the Vatican to insist on Chinese respect for religious freedom as a condition for a renewed agreement. During an appearance in Rome earlier this month, Pompeo said that the Holy See “can move our world in a more human direction, like almost no other institution.” Recalling the example of Pope John Paul II, who challenged religious repression under the old Soviet regime, he exhorted the Vatican to pose similar challenges to China. His efforts proved unsuccessful, as the Secretariat of State moved rapidly toward conclusion of a renewed accord.

Vatican officials had confidently predicted the extension of the accord in recent days. Chinese government officials had been silent about the negotiations to extend the agreement, leading some analysts to suspect that some issues remained unresolved. Father Cervellera suggested that while Vatican officials will continue to push China on religious freedom, Beijing, for its part, will seek to persuade the Vatican to break off diplomatic ties with Taiwan.


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  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Oct. 23, 2020 6:40 PM ET USA

    Apparently the phrase "appointment of bishops who would be recognized both by the Holy See and by the Beijing regime" means Beijing appointing and the Vatican acquiescing; in this way, the Vatican can "boast" of "communion with Rome". It is strange that the boasts of the Vatican remind one of the boasts of a certain politician wherein both are equally empty. It is becoming increasingly clear that Pope Francis, again like a certain politician, will go to any length to claim "victory".