ROME – Despite mounting criticism, the Vatican announced Thursday the renewal of its provisional agreement with China on the appointment of bishops for another two years, in what many observers see as a down payment by Rome on eventual diplomatic ties with Beijing.
“The Holy See considers the initial application of the agreement – which is of great ecclesial and pastoral value – to have been positive,” a Vatican statement said Oct. 22, “thanks to good communication and cooperation between the parties on the matters agreed upon.”
The Vatican, the statement said “intends to pursue an open and constructive dialogue for the benefit of the life of the Catholic Church and the good of Chinese people.”
Brokered in September 2018, the deal is believed to be modeled after the Holy See’s agreement with Vietnam, in which allows the Holy See to pick bishops from a selection of candidates proposed by the government, although its terms have never been made public.
When the provisional agreement was announced in 2018, Pope Francis formally recognized eight bishops named by the Chinese government’s Patriotic Association without the permission of the pope, meaning that until then, technically they had been excommunicated.
Today’s announcement still offers no insight as to the terms of the agreement, which was renewed ad experimentum for another two years.
According to experts in Sino-Vatican relations, the provisional agreement, while pastoral, is clearly intended to be a first step in establishing full diplomatic relations with China, with the Vatican’s relationship with Taiwan as the main bargaining chip.
Toward full diplomatic relations
Paolo Affatato, head of the Asia desk at Fides News, told Crux that forging diplomatic relations with China was always the Vatican’s endgame.
“Remember that when Cardinal [Angelo] Sodano, in the time of John Paul II, when he was the Secretary of State, said often that the Holy See was ready ‘not tomorrow but today’ to close diplomatic representation with Taiwan and transfer the nunciature to Beijing, as it was in the beginning.”
“Let’s recall that originally the nunciature was in China and only because of the cultural revolution it was transferred temporarily to Taiwan,” he said, insisting that the Vatican’s representation in Taiwan “was born with a temporary provision…but then temporary has lasted for many years.”
“Even in this (agreement), it is a goal, an objective, that has always been very clear for the Holy See,” he said. “It can be a first step also for full diplomatic relations, this is not a secret. The Holy See has said openly that it is ready to establish again diplomatic relations.”
Similarly, Father Bernardo Cervellera, head of AsiaNews, said forging diplomatic relations is also China’s strategy. Speaking to Crux, he said he believes the renewal of the agreement “is only because China is very interested in the Vatican arriving at diplomatic relations in order to cut ties with Taiwan.”
“The political motive of China in this relationship, to which the Foreign Minister is also very favorable, is to continue these relations for perhaps two more years and then maybe there will be diplomatic relations,” he said, noting that that since the Holy See is Taiwan’s only diplomatic ally in Europe, any formal relationship with China would isolate Taiwan.
Taiwan as a bargaining chip
According to Cervellera, the position of Taiwan could be a strategy for the Vatican to push for more visible changes on issues of concern with the Chinese Communist Party, such as religious freedom.
“If China accepted another agreement for the nomination of bishops, then for me in these two years they must work to broaden religious freedom for the Church in China,” he said, explaining this would imply the government recognizing underground bishops as legitimate; freeing bishops who have been imprisoned; and “eliminating” or sidelining the government-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association as the controlling entity of the Church in China.
Since the 1949 Communist takeover of China, Catholicism in the country has been split between an “official” church that cooperates with the government and an “underground” church which resists its control.
If these steps are not taken, Cervellera said, “I think it will be hard for the Vatican to break with Taiwan, because relations with Taiwan are the only card the Vatican has left to play with China. They don’t have other instruments of power, they don’t have instruments to pressure China, apart from this.”
It didn’t start with Francis
Both Cervellera and Affatato stressed that while significant, the Vatican’s engagement with China is not something new under Francis but has been the Holy See’s consistent approach since relations broke in 1949.
“For the Vatican, they have been trying for 60 years to have a relationship with China. During the period of Mao, they didn’t do it, because Mao was totally closed. But from the moment there was Deng Xiaoping, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and then Francis, have all tried to have a relationship with China,” Cervellera said.
Affatato insisted that it was Pope John Paul II who first drew attention to the issue of bishops in China, “he gave the first impulse,” which has been carried forward by both Benedict XVI and Francis.
“Now things have concluded with the government of Pope Francis, but the will of the Holy See already from the time of Pope John Paul II has always been very clear,” he said, noting that in the past 70 years China “has changed a lot. It’s not the China of Mao.”
Yet while relations do exist now, Cervellera cautioned against giving this too much weight, saying the current deal is “a very small and fragile thing.”
“There are enormous problems with religious freedom in China,” he said, adding that “90 percent of the things of the life of the Church in China don’t work. So, considering this element, we hope that it can grow,” he said referring to religious freedom in China.
From the beginning the deal was met with harsh criticism from both members and non-members of the Catholic Church who argue that making any sort of agreement with the Chinese government is akin to selling out Catholics who have endured persecution and imprisonment by the communist regime, and would only allow the Communist Party to tighten its grip on religions in general, rather that proving more breathing room.
As the date of the deal’s expiration and its potential renewal drew closer, this criticism increased even among the international community.
In September, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ahead of a planned visit to the Vatican penned an article in the conservative religious magazine First Things, which has published content critical of Pope Francis, urging the Vatican to exercise its “moral authority” with China in condemning violations of religious freedom and human rights.
In response to the article, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said he was “surprised” and that the magazine was not the right venue to have the discussion. He also defended the Vatican’s position, saying the renewal of the agreement was a “thought-out decision” and was aware of religious freedom concerns.
Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and a vocal opponent of Pope Francis’s approach to China, has issued several statements condemning the deal and its renewal, saying in a recent article that Parolin is “a liar” and questioning his faith, arguing that the deal is more about politics than evangelization.
Speaking to Crux from his apartment in Hong Kong Oct. 22, Zen called the renewal of the deal a “sell-out,” a “big mistake,” “silly,” and “absurd.”
He lamented that after two years, and despite being a Chinese cardinal, he has never once seen the text of the agreement, and argued that the renewed deal is pointless, because the Chinese authorities “don’t keep their word.”
“What will be the effect of diplomatic relations?” he asked, pointing to the Vatican’s Ostpolitk approach to engagement with communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Even in these cases, he said, agreements were made, but the communists “don’t respect agreements.”
“Even in these two years, what is the effect that it’s had? Nothing! The Vatican has gotten nothing,” Zen said, insisting there has been no sign of improvement on the issue of religious freedom, but rather, there is now “even more persecution.”
He said the underground Church has been “destroyed” and accused the Vatican of giving “everything they had to the Chinese government.”
Zen said he ultimately doesn’t care if the deal is renewed or not, “because I don’t see any advantage. There is no foundation for any optimism. Optimism must be founded on facts. Maybe small facts, okay, but there is nothing which has encouraged me to be optimistic.”
Affatato and Cervellera offered diverging opinions on how to react to critics, including Zen.
Cervellera said critics such as Zen have highlighted “some very important things” in terms of religious freedom in China and the nation’s track record in respecting its agreements. If priests and bishops are forced to align with political authorities, he said, this would risk turning them into “functionaries of state,” rather than agents of evangelization.
He also pushed for the protection of other religious communities, saying that “In these two years, the Church must work for greater religious liberty for the Catholic Church, but also for Muslims, Buddhists and Protestants, who are also very persecuted by the regime.”
Affatato insisted that the agreement “has a religious, pastoral nature,” and as such “shouldn’t begiven a political and geopolitical weight, like the US government might want to do.”
The agreement, he said, shows that Catholicism is “not a faith strictly from the west,” but is universal.
He also called the motive of the agreement’s critics into question, saying the important thing is the unity and appreciation of the Chinese Catholic community, “in whose name no one can speak but themselves.”
Cervellera acknowledged the appeal of an agreement with China, saying that to do otherwise would mean “working against a wall,” but he argued that the Church must be clearer in terms of evangelization.
“I think the Vatican must find ways in these two years to support the life of the Church more,” he said, and, pointing to the massive growth of Protestantism in China, stressed that “you can evangelize without diplomatic relations.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen