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ROME – Two top-ranking Vatican officials have praised the renewal of the Vatican’s agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, admitting there are challenges, but saying it is a down-payment on a freer exercise of faith for Chinese Catholics in the future.

The Vatican announced the renewal of the deal Saturday, saying in an official communique that “After appropriate consultation and assessment, the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China have agreed to extend for another two years the Provisional Agreement regarding the appointment of Bishops,” which was first brokered in September 2018, and renewed for the first time in 2020.

In their statement, the Vatican said they are “committed to continuing a respectful and constructive dialogue with the Chinese Party for a productive implementation of the Accord and further development of bilateral relations, with a view to fostering the mission of the Catholic Church and the good of the Chinese people.”

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Though the terms of the agreement have never been made public, the deal is believed to be modeled after the Holy See’s agreement with Vietnam, allowing the Holy See to pick bishops from a selection of candidates proposed by the government.

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.

So far, six new bishops have been appointed in the four years that have elapsed since the deal was struck.

Critics of the deal, including Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong – who is currently on trial for his support of the pro-democracy movement in the territory – have argued that Pope Francis and his top aides are “selling out” Chinese Catholics who have faced persecution by the Chinese government for remaining faithful to Rome.

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, and supporters of the agreement argue that now, for the first time in 70 years, the Catholic church in China can function as one body.

In an interview with Andrea Tornielli, editorial director for Vatican News, the Vatican’s state information platform, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, said the deal is still classified as provisional because “we are still in the experimentation phase.”

“As is always the case, such difficult and delicate situations require adequate time for implementation in order to then be able to verify the effectiveness of the result and identify possible improvements,” he said, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to hold meetings between delegations.

Pope Francis, he said, “with determination and patient foresight” has decided to continue the path that the Vatican and China are currently walking, “not under the illusion of finding perfection in human rules,” but with the hope of assuring Chinese Catholic communities “of the guidance of pastors who are worthy and suitable for the task entrusted to them,” despite ongoing complexities.

Parolin declined to provide the terms of the agreement when asked, but insisted that “both the needs expressed by the country’s authorities and the needs of the Catholic communities” have been taken into consideration.

In terms of concrete results from the deal, Parolin said that not only are all bishops in the Church in China now in full communion with Rome, meaning there have been no more “illegitimate episcopal ordinations” since the deal was struck, but six bishops have been appointed according to “the established procedure that leaves the Pope the final and decisive say.”

He also pointed to the formal registration of six “clandestine” bishops, meaning their position has been made official by the government, and they are now “recognized as bishops by public institutions.”

“These may seem small achievements but, for those who examine history with the eyes of faith, they are important steps toward the progressive healing of the wounds inflicted on ecclesial communion by the events of the past,” Parolin said.

He acknowledged criticism of the deal and admitted that that there are still “numerous difficulties that affect the concrete life of the Catholic communities,” saying these problems have the Vatican’s “utmost attention.”

New solutions to these problems must be developed “in a collaborative relationship that has multiple protagonists,” he said.

Parolin said the Vatican has chosen, despite ongoing concerns, “to undertake and continue along, beyond any opposition, the path of constructive dialogue with China, in which the Provisional Agreement for the Appointment of Bishops occupies a limited but significant part.”

“The ultimate goal of this journey is for the ‘little flock’ of Chinese Catholics to advance in the possibility of living serenely and freely their Christian life,” he said.

In an interview with Italian journalist Gianni Valente of Fides News, Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Pro-Prefect for the Section of Evangelization of Dicastery for Evangelization, also praised the renewal of the agreement as another step on the right path.

Prior to the deal, “there were things at stake that touch the intimate nature of the Church and her mission of salvation,” such as the celebration of the sacraments.

“The reason for everything is to safeguard the valid apostolic succession and the sacramental nature of the Catholic Church in China,” he said, saying “this can reassure, comfort and enliven baptized Catholics in China.”

In reference to remarks from some observers who say that the deal is a down-payment on eventual diplomatic relations with China, Tagle said that since the agreement deals with such vital issues for the life of the church, it “cannot be reduced to a side element of some diplomatic strategy.”

“Any consideration that ignores or obscures this singular physiognomy of the agreement, ends up giving it a false representation,” he said.

In terms of the long game, Tagle, whose has Chinese heritage, said that while just six bishops have been appointed so far, there is a benefit to long-term engagement with the Chinese.

“Listening to the arguments and objections of the government also leads us to take into account the contexts and the mindset of our interlocutors,” he said. “We discover that things that are absolutely clear and almost obvious to us can be new and unknown to them.”

This kind of engagement, he said, allows the church to discover new ways of expressing its priorities in a method and language that help the Chinese better understand their aims.

Tagle hit-back against critics who argue that supporters of the deal are operating according to a naïve optimism, saying that since the process began in 2018, “no one has ever shown naive triumphalism.”

“The Holy See has never spoken of the agreement as the solution of all problems. It has always been perceived and affirmed that the path is long, it can be tiring, and that the agreement itself could cause misunderstandings and disorientation,” he said.

No one is ignorant of the different reactions among Chinese Catholics to the deal, he said, but called this “part of the process,” and said, “one always has to dirty ones hands with the reality of things as they are.”

Referring to the past and even present difficulties that Christians in China face, Tagle said the Holy See’s choices are made “precisely starting from this recognition and gratitude for those who have confessed their faith in Christ in times of tribulation.”

“In dialogue, the Holy See has its own respectful style of communicating with representatives of the Chinese government, but which never ignores and indeed always makes present the situations of suffering of Catholic communities, which sometimes arise from inappropriate pressures and interference,” he said.

Asked about the Chinese government’s failure to recognize several so-called “underground bishops,” despite the pope lifting the excommunications on the six “official” bishops, Tagle said this is an issue “always considered in the dialogue.”

“To favor the solution of this problem, perhaps it would be useful to keep in mind by all that bishops cannot be seen as ‘officials or functionaries,’” but are successors to the apostles, he said.

Asked about his own approach given his Chinese heritage, Talge said that when he thinks about dialogue with the Chinese government on ecclesial matters, “I think that sometimes it is better to look for simple and direct arguments, to meet the concrete and pragmatic approach of our interlocutors.”

“They cannot be expected to grasp the mystery of the Church in depth,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen