On Saturday, September 22, a long-anticipated “provisional agreement” between the Chinese government and the Vatican was announced regarding the process of appointing bishops in the Catholic Church in China.
Officially, this agreement puts an end to the decades-long division between Chinese Catholics who worship in state-sanctioned churches whose bishops are appointed by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), and the “underground” Church whose bishops have Vatican approval. In reality, the situation is much more complex. As I wrote earlier this year:
The most important thing to understand is that this is complicated. There are many moving parts; considering the people involved, the history, the size of the country, and the diversity of experience, it is nearly impossible to make general statements about the state of the Church in China, its freedom to operate, and the relationship between the underground Church and the CPA.
For an extensive overview of the situation and history of the Catholic Church in China, my analysis from February is still relevant, and I encourage you to take a look. In it, I chart the history of the relationship between the Church and China, analyze the present (pre-agreement) situation, and offer my qualified endorsement of the anticipated agreement.
As I wrote in my earlier piece, I recognize the great suffering that an agreement between the two parties will cause many of those underground Catholics who have endured persecution in the last 70 years at the hands of the Chinese government. The government has undergone no great conversion, and still often carries out forms of persecution against those who practice any religion in China. The agreement is far from ideal, and no Catholic who endorses it thinks it represents much more than a first step towards religious liberty in China. The simple question is whether, on the whole, this agreement with China is better than the status quo.
For a more recent (and decidedly more academic) analysis of a potential deal, read this essay by University of Dallas politics Professor Gladden J. Pappin and Harvard Law Professor Adrian Vermeule. They also give cautious approval to the impending deal:
In this extraordinarily complicated context, we can imagine a number of rational grounds for a concordat between the Holy See and China. Rational does not mean there are no trade-offs or even tragic dilemmas, nor does it necessarily entail a maximization of some welfare function. We use it in a relaxed sense, meaning just that a roughly reasonable authority could think that, on balance, prudence weighs in favor of an agreement.
Pope Francis first spoke publicly about the agreement during his in-flight press conference following his trip to the Baltic region. He said:
This is a process of years, a dialogue between the Vatican commission and the Chinese commission to put the appointment of bishops in order. The Vatican team worked a lot. I would like to say some names: Monsignor Celli (Ed. note: Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli), who with patience went into dialogue. Years. Years! Then, Fr. Rota Graziosi, a humble Curia official of 72 years of age who wants to be a priest, to go in a parish, but he stayed in the Curia to help in this process. And then, the Secretary of State, who is a very devoted man, Cardinal Parolin, but he has a special devotion to the lens, he studies all of the documents down to the period, comma, notes, and this gives me a great assurance. Also, this team with these qualities went ahead. You know that when you make a peace agreement or a negotiation, both sides lose something. This is the law. Both sides. And you move ahead.
This went ahead two steps and back one, two ahead and back one. Then, months passed without speaking to each other and then the time of God, which appears to be [the time of the] Chinese. Slowly. This is wisdom, the wisdom of the Chinese. And the bishops who were in difficulty were studied case by case and in the case of the bishops, in the end dossiers came on to my desk about each one. And, I was responsible for signing the case of the bishops. Then, the case of the agreement returned, the drafts on my desk. They were spoken about. I gave my ideas. The other discussed and went ahead. I think of the resistance, the Catholics who have suffered. It’s true. And, they will suffer. Always, in an agreement, there is suffering. They have a great faith. And they write. They make messages arrive that what the Holy See, what Peter says is that which Jesus says. The martyrial faith of these people today goes ahead. They are the greats!
I signed the agreement. At least, the plenipotentiary letters for signing that agreement that I had signed. I am responsible. The others that I appointed in all have worked for more than 10 years. It’s not an improvisation. It’s a path, a true path.
But, this isn’t that they [the Chinese] appoint [the bishops]. No, this is a dialogue about eventual candidates but Rome appoints, the Pope appoints. And, let us pray for the suffering of some who don’t understand and who have at their backs so many years of being clandestine.
On Wednesday, September 26, the Vatican released a document entitled, “Message of Pope Francis to the Catholics of China and to the Universal Church.” In this message, he acknowledged the varied reactions and responses of many Chinese Catholics about the agreement. He writes, “Some feel doubt and perplexity, while others sense themselves somehow abandoned by the Holy See and anxiously question the value of their sufferings endured out of fidelity to the Successor of Peter. In many others, there prevail positive expectations and reflections inspired by the hope of a more serene future for a fruitful witness to the faith in China.”
He goes on to express his gratitude for their steadfast faith across the decades in light of the trials that they have faced:
“I want to assure you through this brief Message that you are daily present in my prayers, and to share with you my heartfelt feelings.
They are sentiments of thanksgiving to the Lord and of sincere admiration – which is the admiration of the entire Catholic Church – for the gift of your fidelity, your constancy amid trials, and your firm trust in God’s providence, even when certain situations proved particularly adverse and difficult.”
Regarding his decision about the status of the Chinese bishops, he explains:
Consequently, after carefully examining every individual personal situation, and listening to different points of view, I have devoted much time to reflection and prayer, seeking the true good of the Church in China. In the end, before the Lord and with serenity of judgment, in continuity with the direction set by my immediate predecessors, I have determined to grant reconciliation to the remaining seven “official” bishops ordained without papal mandate and, having lifted every relevant canonical sanction, to readmit them to full ecclesial communion. At the same time, I ask them to express with concrete and visible gestures their restored unity with the Apostolic See and with the Churches spread throughout the world, and to remain faithful despite any difficulties.
After exhorting the Catholics of China to undertake this reconciliation of their Church, and expressing his desire for greater dialogue and friendship with the officials of the Chinese government, Pope Francis asks for all to join him in invoking the Blessed Mother’s protection with this prayer:
Mother of Heaven, hear the plea of your children as we humbly call upon your name!
Virgin of Hope, we entrust to you the journey of the faithful in the noble land of China. We ask you to present to the Lord of history the trials and tribulations, the petitions and the hopes of all those who pray to you, O Queen of Heaven!
Mother of the Church, we consecrate to you the present and the future of our families and our communities. Protect and sustain them in fraternal reconciliation and in service to the poor who bless your name, O Queen of Heaven!
Consolation of the Afflicted, we turn to you, for you are the refuge of all who weep amid their trials. Watch over your sons and daughters who praise your name; make them one in bringing the proclamation of the Gospel.
Accompany their efforts to build a more fraternal world. Grant that they may bring the joy of forgiveness to all whom they meet, O Queen of Heaven!
Mary, Help of Christians, for China we implore days of blessing and of peace. Amen!
Regardless of one’s opinion of the agreement, it appears now to be a “done deal.” The Holy Father and his diplomatic corps, after a decade-long process, have reached a provisional agreement with China over the selection of bishops. In order for the way forward to be fruitful, trust, openness, and dialogue are essential. Let us join Pope Francis in prayer for the Church in China.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.