ROME – Over the past week top officials from both China and the Vatican have given indications that the controversial agreement between the two on the appointment of bishops, which expires at the end of this month, will be renewed.
According to Italian news agency Ansa, Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin spoke to a group of journalists on the margins of a Sept. 14 conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, saying the agreement with China is set to expire “in October,” but that the common intention of both parties is to renew the deal.
The conference Parolin attended was called, “45 years from the Helsinki Accords, Cardinal Silvestrini, and Vatican Ostpolitik.”
His remarks come days after Zhao Lijian, spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, also expressed optimism for the renewal of the agreement during a regular Sept. 10 press conference.
Asked if he was hopeful that China’s deal with the Vatican on the appointment of bishops would be extended for another two years, Lijian said that thanks to efforts from both sides, “the interim agreement on the appointment of bishops between China and the Vatican has been implemented successfully since it was signed nearly two years ago.”
“Since the beginning of this year, the two sides have lent mutual support to each other amid COVID-19 pandemic, stayed committed to upholding global public health security, and accumulated greater mutual trust and consensuses through a series of positive interactions,” he said.
In this light, Lijian insisted that both China and the Holy See “will continue to maintain close communication and consultation and improve bilateral relations.”
When the coronavirus hit Italy in March, China was among the many nations that sent help, providing both doctors and medical equipment in mid-March when the coronavirus was nearing its peak. Two Chinese charitable organizations also sent health supplies such as face masks to the Vatican Pharmacy to support COVID patients.
The Vatican later issued a public statement thanking China for the assistance, yet made no such gesture toward Taiwan, which also sent donations of food and medical equipment to both the Vatican and numerous religious institutes throughout Rome, despite being one of Taiwan’s sole 14 diplomatic partners and the only one in Europe.
It has long been known that the Vatican under Pope Francis desperately wants formal diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China. The 2018 secret agreement on the appointment of bishops was interpreted by many as a step in this direction, and the Vatican’s silence toward Taiwan – officially known as the Republic of China – during the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy was a clear sign to many of just how far the Holy See would go to ensure that the door they have stays open.
It should be no surprise, then, that Parolin’s optimism about the renewal of the deal came on the margins of a conference on the Vatican’s Ostpolitik policy.
Originally, Ostpolitik was a term in the late 1960s to describe normalization of relations between East and West Germany. Later, it also came to refer to efforts under Paul VI to engage Eastern European communist regimes through compromise and agreements with the aim of building on small gains over time.
The same basic approach has been employed for China by each of Paul VI’s successors, including Francis – with the exception, perhaps, of John Paul I, whose 33 days in office didn’t allow much time for international affairs.
In fact, Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, the Italian Vatican diplomat featured in Monday’s conference and who once served as head of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, was a key player in employing this tactic as the Vatican intervened in the bid to reduce tensions between the Soviet Union and western blocs.
Silvestrini participated in each stage of the Helsinki conference on security and cooperation in Europe in 1975, which yielded the Helsinki Accords, signed by 35 nations in an attempt to secure the post-World War II status quo in Europe. Silvestrini also lent a hand in the prep work and implementation of the 1975 conference.
Among other things, the Helsinki Accords enshrined respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms such as the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, or belief.
Opponents of Pope Francis’s agreement with China on the appointment of bishops have argued that these are the freedoms China has consistently denied to the Catholic Church and other religious denominations for years, and which the deal allows them to perpetuate without repercussion.
However, both the Holy See and China are masters at playing the long game.
Reacting to criticism at conference on religious freedom last spring, Parolin said the Holy See’s vision in making the agreement was to “help advance religious freedom, to find normalization for the Catholic community there.”
He stressed the need to be patient, saying, “history has not been built in one day. History is a long process, and I think we have to put ourselves in this perspective.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen