Reports Say Agreement Expected Between China, Vatican on Bishops ‘In March’

China and the Vatican look set to ink an agreement next month on the appointment of bishops, marking a significant concession on the part of the Holy See to the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s regime of religious controls, media reports have indicated.

The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera cited a source close to the talks as saying that any day before the end of March would be a “good day” to sign the new deal.

The new accord would likely also lead to “improved relations” between Beijing and the Vatican, which is the only European state currently to recognize the democratic island of Taiwan, the last bastion of the 1911 Republic of China forced out by the communists under Mao Zedong in 1949, it said.

By signing the deal, the Vatican will be hoping to eliminate the division between bishops and churches recognized by the government-backed Catholic Patriotic Association and those appointed by Rome, the paper said.

The result could be an expansion of the Catholic Church in China, it said.

In response, a delegation of five Taiwan lawmakers visited the Vatican with hope of meeting Pope Francis but was only received by Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican foreign minister, according to Taiwan’s ministry of foreign affairs.

The delegation was led by ruling Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker Tsai Shih-ying, and was assured that the current negotiations with Beijing had no diplomatic or political content, and were concerned purely with religious matters, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported.

Taiwan’s government says it is “closely following” the interactions between China and the Vatican.

‘Early establishment of diplomatic relations’

Liu Yongbin, bishop at the state-backed St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, said the reports that an agreement is imminent are accurate, which he hopes will lead to diplomatic relations.

“We are looking for the early establishment of diplomatic relations [between China and the Vatican],” Liu told RFA on Wednesday.

“We are all proceeding on the basis on consultations, cooperating for the benefit of all,” he said. “Following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we are bringing God’s holy purpose into the world.”

“Sometimes this takes time, and we need to have a dispute, but we need to reach an accord,” Liu said. “To achieve a good aim, you also need a good means.”

Reports emerged earlier this year that Catholic Church had asked a Vatican-recognized Chinese bishop to step down in favor of an excommunicated bishop approved by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Meanwhile, a second Vatican-appointed bishop had been asked to downgrade himself to act as “assistant” to a government-approved bishop, the Catholic news site AsiaNews reported.

The requests were made after Bishop Peter Zhuang was escorted to Beijing from Dec. 18-22 to meet with central government religious affairs officials and a delegation from the Vatican, the report said. He was asked to step down in favor of Bishop Huang Bingzhang, a long-standing member of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), who has been excommunicated by Rome.

Relations between Beijing and the Vatican have come under repeated strain as China moves to ordain more and more of its own bishops without Vatican approval to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population.

The Vatican had previously responded by excommunicating bishops who accept Beijing’s consecration ceremonies, saying that only the Pope can appoint bishops.

Consternation in some circles

Han Yingjin, a Vatican-appointed bishop from the northern province of Shaanxi who has also received the approval of the government, said the talks won’t be plain sailing.

“I think there’s a clear consensus in one area, which is the question of the appointment of bishops, because it’s easy to say where power will lie,” Han told RFA in a recent interview. “But the less clear area is in the question of the leadership of the Patriotic Catholic Association, and the all-important issue of who will be in charge.”

“This is probably less easy to negotiate, and my feeling is that this will have a direct or indirect impact on any progress when it comes to establishing diplomatic ties,” he said.

The recent rapprochement with Beijing has prompted consternation in some circles, with a group of leading Catholics in Hong Kong and the U.S. writing that they were “deeply shocked and disappointed” by the moves.

The letter cited church articles as saying that the right to nominate and appoint bishops belongs only to the Church, not to any secular body such as the atheist Chinese Communist Party.

It said religious persecution continues unabated under the administration of President Xi Jinping amid heavy-handed controls by religious affairs officials, and that any deal could affect the Church’s “holiness and moral integrity.”

Many state-backed Chinese Catholics welcomed the news of a likely deal, however.

Father Shen of the Wangcun Catholic Church in Laoding township in the northern province of Shanxi said that the talks were “wonderfully arranged” by God.

“I look forward to the work of the Holy Spirit, and the greater blessings it will bring to the Chinese Church and to the Chinese people,” Shen told RFA. “There may be different views expressed in the media, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t God’s work.”

But a Protestant Christian believer surnamed Hu said he doesn’t believe the Chinese government will make any concessions when it comes to religious freedom.

“As someone who lives in mainland China, the Chinese Communist Party probably won’t make any concessions in the area of religious autonomy, or religious freedom,” Hu said. “They may well do so within the areas they already control … but any concessions made by the Vatican will inevitably involve bringing concessions in the area of religious freedom to the talks.”

He said the Vatican had been lured by the prospect of a huge “religious market” in China into potentially having diplomatic ties with an atheist country.

(Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.)

(Father Zhao Qinglong speaks during a mass on Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, at Beijing’s government sanctioned South Cathedral on Feb. 14, 2018. Photo: AFP)

Your Responses