ROME – After two top prelates recently butted heads over the legitimacy of the Vatican’s 2018 agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, one expert on Chinese affairs stepped in insisting that the deal was not only good, but a product of more than 30 years of Vatican diplomacy.

Paolo Affatato, head of the Asia desk for Fides News, told Crux that Pope Francis’s agreement with China on the appointment of bishops “is a fruit of 30 years of work, it wasn’t born yesterday.”

“It was born under John Paul II, who was the first to begin the process of closeness and communion of the bishops in China who were considered illicit,” he said, calling the agreement a “point of arrival” for not only Francis, but also St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Over time “a series of problems caused a brake, but the conclusion arrived,” Affatato said, comparing the deal to the building of a palace. The foundation is laid first, he said, and little by little the rest of the structure is built up, reaching completion with the opening of the palace doors.

“It is no longer the time of the clandestine, the clandestine phase cannot last for forever,” he explained, referring to the so-called “underground” Catholics in China, who have maintained faithfulness to Rome and shunned the state-sponsored Church at odds with the Holy See.

“China has changed, it’s no longer the China of Mao,” Affatato added, noting that leadership, markets, global trends and politics have all changed in the time since China fell under communist rule. “The cultural revolution today is not the same today as it was 60 years ago,” he said.

Affatato spoke after a recent riff between Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, and Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and one of the most vocal critics of Pope Francis’s approach to China.

In a Feb. 26 letter sent to all cardinals, Re, 86, referenced a prior Sept. 27, 2019, letter Zen had sent to cardinals criticizing the Vatican’s 2018 provisional agreement with China on the appointment of bishops.

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In his letter, Re stressed the continuity with Francis’s deal and the approach of his predecessors to China, saying the deal Francis struck is in line with the approach of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, particularly on the appointment of bishops.

“John Paul II wished to support the Clandestine Chinese Catholic communities and also promoted the idea of a formal agreement with government authorities on the appointment of bishops,” Re said, adding that this idea was also backed by Benedict XVI, who he said “approved a draft agreement on the appointment of Bishops in China,” which only became possible to sign in 2018 when Francis was already in office.

He referred to an assertion from Zen’s that “the agreement signed is the same one that Pope Benedict had refused to sign at the time,” calling Zen’s position “surprising” and insisting that that it “does not correspond to the truth,” based on the Vatican Secretariat of State archives.

“I am able to assure your Eminences that Pope Benedict XVI had approved the draft Agreement on the appointment of Bishops in China, which was only possible to sign in 2018,” Re said, insisting that Zen’s letter sheds light on how complex the situation is not only for Catholics in China, but for bishops and the pope.

“We are, therefore, all called to unite ourselves closely to him and to pray intensely for the Holy Spirit to support (the Holy Father) and to support the communities of the Catholic Church in China, who despite suffering for a long time demonstrate their loyalty to the Lord, on the path of reconciliation, of unity and of mission at the service of the Gospel,” he said.

Zen, who has consistently criticized the 2018 deal, at times insisting that Pope Francis has been “manipulated” by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin on the China issue, accusing Parolin of vainglory, penned a response to Re on March 1.

In his retort, Zen called Re’s letter his “inaugural address,” as Re was just appointed Dean of the College of Cardinals in January.

Zen insisted that John Paul II, instead of being conciliatory and accepting compromises, thought “it was necessary to resist” communism forcefully, saying “This was the fundamental vision of John Paul II which I shared.”

Challenging Re to “show me the text of the agreement” that Benedict XVI approved and Francis signed with Chinese officials, Zen said he possesses “strong evidence” that Parolin “is manipulating the Holy Father, who always shows so much affection to me when we meet, but never answers my questions.”

As he has in the past, Zen also criticized the Vatican for the mistranslation of documents, particularly Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics, which Affatato called the “midway” point between what John Paul II began with China, and Francis’s signing of the provisional agreement in 2018.

Affatato said that in his view, “I don’t find the critiques of this agreement justified,” insisting that the deal has “indisputable historical value because for the first time all Chinese bishops are in union with the Holy See.”

Weaving relations with the Chinese has been a years-long process, he said, but added that “this is an agreement which is a point of departure, it’s not perfect.”

Chinese Catholics, bishops included, generally accept the deal, and their attitude “is very different than what the Church in Hong Kong thinks, which has its own history … also, on the level of mentality it’s different,” claimed Affatato.

Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, and is governed under the “one country, two systems” policy, giving it basic civil liberties lacking in Mainland China, including religious freedom. This means the pope freely appoints the Bishop of Hong Kong.

“Today, if we go to look at the reality of the life of the Church in China, it’s 90 percent in agreement on the path of this accord. It can be better, but it’s the first necessary step,” Affatato said.

He acknowledged that many Chinese Catholics have suffered and that there are still problems with Chinese officials in some areas.

“But you cannot put into discussion the whole plan,” he said. “This, to me, is an error. Neither does the Church in China want it. “

Ultimately China’s fear is that religion of any kind becomes a source of political instability, Affatato said, adding that the Catholic Church has no desire or intention to intervene or overthrow political powers in any part of the world.

“The goal is this: To restore the communion of bishops with the Holy See, and therefore with the Church,” he continued, insisting the Vatican’s agreement with China “looks to the nature of the Church and not to politics.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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