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Vatican to renew deal with China on bishops after ‘friendly consultations’

Pope Francis. (Malacañang Photo Bureau/Released)
October 23, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The Vatican on Thursday announced it would renew a controversial deal with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the running of the Catholic Church in China.

“The Holy See considers the initial application of the agreement – which is of great ecclesial and pastoral value – to have been positive, thanks to good communication and cooperation between the parties on the matters agreed upon,” the Vatican said in a statement on Oct. 22,

While the details of the deal have never been made public, the arrangement allows Catholic bishops in China to be approved by both the CCP and the Vatican, effectively spelling an end to the underground Catholic church.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the deal, which brings all 12 million of China’s Catholics under government control, came “after friendly consultation.”

“The two sides will maintain close communication and consultation, and continue to push forward the process of improving relations,” Zhao told a regular news briefing in Beijing.

But Hong Kong’s Cardinal Zen, who has been an outspoken critic of the deal with China, described the extension of the deal as a “sell-out,” and a “big mistake,” Catholic news website The Crux reported on Thursday.

“Even in these two years, what is the effect that it’s had? Nothing!” Zen told the paper. “The Vatican has gotten nothing … [but] even more persecution [of Catholics].”

Zen said the deal had destroyed the underground Church, and accused the Vatican of giving away everything, Crux reported.

When contacted by RFA on Thursday, Zen said he had nothing more to say, however.

‘Some may be harmed’

But Bishop Joseph Han Yingjin of the Diocese of Sanyuan in the northern province of Shaanxi, who is officially recognized by both the Vatican and China, said his diocese had supported the agreement since it was signed in 2018.

Mainstream opinion in China is that the agreement is an important breakthrough in the relationship between the Vatican and China, as well as resolving the issues of consecration and communion that the Chinese Church has been unable to resolve, and easing the conflict between the above-ground and underground churches, Han told RFA.

“This may cause some harm to some people … I think this is inevitable. There has been some pain as part of the process,” Han told RFA. “But if the relationship between China and the Vatican is going to move forward, this pain is indispensable.”

“There will be a small negative impact on some people and some places, but overall it is definitely … beneficial for the Catholic Church in mainland China,” he said.

Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai hit out at the deal’s renewal, as well as what he called China’s attempt to impose its values on the rest of the world.

“The Vatican has gained nothing but the oppression of the church and the believers,” Lai said in an online chat session reported by his pro-democracy newspaper, the Apple Daily.

The Vatican said it would “pursue an open and constructive dialogue for the benefit of the life of the Catholic Church and the good of Chinese people,” prompting many to speculate that the deal could pave the way for the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Holy See and Beijing.

No pressure on Beijing

Professor Chang Chia-lin of Taiwan’s Aletheia University said the Vatican was unlikely to put any kind of pressure on Beijing to treat Catholics better.

“Will the Vatican be saying to the Chinese Communist Party that they mustn’t disrupt religious worship or censor priests’ sermons, or demolish crosses?” Chang said. “The Pope … probably sees these as isolated cases.”

“But in the eyes of a democratic nation, it’s religious persecution and control,” he said.

The controversial deal struck in November 2018 eliminated the division between bishops and churches recognized by the government-backed Catholic Patriotic Association and those appointed by Rome.

But rights groups and leading Catholics say religious persecution continued unabated under the administration of President Xi Jinping amid heavy-handed controls by religious affairs officials.

Under the agreement, Rome recognized seven bishops appointed by the Chinese state, and the agreement also saw the founding of a new Catholic diocese in Chengde, in the northern province of Hebei.

Silent on the Uyghurs

Pope Francis has since remained silent on the mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China and other human rights abuses.

The online magazine Bitter Winter reported on Oct. 17 that officials in the northern province of Shanxi gave the go-ahead for graves belonging to Swedish Catholic missionaries to be demolished in September.

A former literature and history scholar surnamed Bai, now based in the U.S., told RFA that Shanxi was once a major hub of Catholicism in China.

“Especially at the end of the 19th century, many missionaries from the West came to Shanxi,” Bai said. “They brought with them a new religion, but they also … built many hospitals and schools.”

“This promoted the modernization of Shanxi, but now China is destroying the relics, the evidence that such people once existed, and eliminating traces of them locally,” he said.