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ROME – Amid increased controversy as a trial against a prominent Chinese cardinal continues to move forward in Hong Kong, the Vatican and China will for the second time renew their provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops.
Speaking to Crux, a high-ranking Vatican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the renewal publicly, said “the agreement with China is scheduled to be renewed on (the) 22nd of October 2022, with no changes to the terms.”
The official stressed that this was not an official statement, and that a formal announcement would be made “in due time” by the Holy See Press Office.
Though the terms of the agreement have never been made public, the deal, brokered in September 2018, 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.
The deal, which many experts in Sino-Vatican relations believe is an initial down payment on eventually forging formal diplomatic ties with China, was renewed in October 2020, just weeks after then-United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized the accord in an article published in a popular conservative magazine.
In a commentary published in rightwing magazine First Things, Pompeo highlighted what he argued were human rights and religious freedom abuses in China, suggesting that the Vatican and Pope Francis risk losing moral authority for not challenging China on religious freedom.
Speaking to journalists at the time, Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin said critiques of the deal were not only heard by the Vatican, but were taken “into consideration, because this is an extremely delicate matter.”
However, he voiced his belief that the Vatican’s current method of dialogue and engagement will achieve that goal in the long run, saying, “We support the politics of small steps. We believe that each result, even if it is not striking, even if it is not showy, even if at the beginning it doesn’t appear to give great results, is however a step forward towards greater religious liberty.”
Only a handful of bishops have been named since the agreement was initially made in 2018, which has prompted some observers to question its effectiveness, while other critics have argued that the deal is being used by Chinese officials to justify their crackdown on religion through the tearing down of churches and crosses from Christian parishes.
Debate over the deal and its renewal flared up again over the summer with the arrest of Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, and five others, who were accused of colluding with foreign forces for their pro-democracy efforts under a Beijing-imposed national security law.
Zen, 90, and all of the other defendants have pleaded not guilty. However, if convicted they could face a fine of up to 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($1,273), with no jail time.
Zen’s trial began Sept. 26 for opening arguments, but was adjourned until Oct. 26, just days after the Vatican-China deal will be formally renewed.
Asked about Zen’s trial on his return flight from Kazakhstan in September, Pope Francis did not comment on the trial specifically, but said stressed the importance of dialogue with China, saying, “To understand China takes a century, and we won’t see a century.”
In its attempt to better understand the Chinese, the Vatican has “chosen the way of dialogue,” he said, saying he respects the Chinese mentality, and that while there are “limitations” in terms of democracy, with dialogue, “many things are clarified, not just things of the church, but things of other sectors.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen