Update: Vatican signs provisional agreement with China on naming bishops

IMAGE: CNS photo/Wu Hong, EPA

By Cindy Wooden

Lithuania (CNS) — For the first time in decades, all of the Catholic bishops
in China are in full communion with the pope, the Vatican announced.

Pope Francis
lifted the excommunications or irregular status of seven bishops who had been
ordained with government approval, but not the Vatican’s consent, the Vatican
announced Sept. 22. A few hours earlier, representatives of the Vatican and the
Chinese government signed what they described as a “provisional
agreement” on the appointment of bishops.

“With a view
to sustaining the proclamation of the Gospel in China, the Holy Father Pope
Francis has decided to readmit to full ecclesial communion the remaining
‘official’ bishops ordained without pontifical mandate,” the Vatican said,
listing their names.

The pope also
included in the list Bishop Anthony Tu Shihua, who, before dying Jan. 4, 2017,
“had expressed the desire to be reconciled with the Apostolic See,”
the Vatican said.

Regularizing the
bishops’ status, the Vatican said, Pope Francis hopes “a new process may
begin that will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to the
full communion of all Chinese Catholics,” some of whom steadfastly have
refused to participate in activities or parishes under the leadership of bishops
not recognized by Rome.

In recent years,
most bishops chosen by the government-related Chinese Catholic Patriotic
Association have sought and received Vatican recognition before their

Cardinal Pietro
Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, said in a statement that “the
objective of the Holy See is a pastoral one: the Holy See intends just to
create the condition, or to help to create the condition, of a greater freedom,
autonomy and organization, in order that the Catholic Church can dedicate itself
to the mission of announcing the Gospel and also to contribute to the
well-being and to the spiritual and material prosperity and harmony of the
country, of every person and of the world as a whole.”

“What is
required now is unity, trust and a new impetus,” Cardinal Parolin said in
a video message recorded before he left Rome to join the pope in Vilnius.
“To the Catholic community in China — the bishops, priests, religious and
faithful — the pope entrusts, above all, the commitment to make concrete fraternal
gestures of reconciliation among themselves, and so to overcome past
misunderstandings, past tensions, even the recent ones.”

The nomination
and assignment of bishops has been a key sticking point in Vatican-Chinese
relations for decades; the Catholic Church has insisted that bishops be
appointed by the pope and the Chinese government has maintained that would
amount to foreign interference in China’s internal affairs.

communities that have refused to register with the government and refused to
follow government-appointed bishops commonly are referred to as the underground
church. Many communities, though, have bishops who were elected locally but who
pledged their unity with and fidelity to the pope, which in effect meant they
were recognized by both the government and the Vatican.

Vatican officials
always have said that giving up full control over the nomination of bishops
would not be what it hopes for, but could be a good first step toward ensuring
greater freedom and security for the Catholic community there.

The Vatican
announcement said the agreement was signed Sept. 22 in Beijing by Msgr. Antoine
Camilleri, undersecretary for foreign relations in the Vatican Secretariat of
State, and Wang Chao, Chinese deputy foreign minister.

The provisional
agreement, the Vatican said, “is the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal
rapprochement, has been agreed following a long process of careful negotiation
and foresees the possibility of periodic reviews of its application. It
concerns the nomination of bishops, a question of great importance for the life
of the church, and creates the conditions for greater collaboration at the
bilateral level.”

“The shared
hope,” the statement said, “is that this agreement may favor a
fruitful and forward-looking process of institutional dialogue and may
contribute positively to the life of the Catholic Church in China, to the
common good of the Chinese people and to peace in the world.”

The Vatican did
not release the text of the agreement nor provide details about what it

News reports in
mid-September, like earlier in the year, said the provisional agreement would
outline precise procedures for ensuring Catholic bishops are elected by the
Catholic community in China and approved by the pope before their ordinations
and installations.

Media reports in
the days before the announcement said future candidates for the office of
bishop will be chosen at the diocesan level through a democratic election
system, and the results of the elections will be sent to Beijing for government
authorities to examine. The government would then submit a name via diplomatic
channels to the Holy See.

The Holy See will
carry out its own investigation of the candidate before the pope either
approves or exercises his veto, according to the Jesuit-run America magazine.
If the pope approves the candidate, the process will continue. If not,
“both sides will engage in a dialogue, and Beijing would eventually be
expected to submit the name of another candidate.”

The pope will
have the final word on the appointment of bishops in China, the report

Cardinal Joseph
Zen, the 76-year-old retired archbishop of Hong Kong, has been one of the
rumored agreement’s strongest critics.

In an interview
with the Reuters news agency in Hong Kong Sept. 20, Cardinal Zen said Cardinal
Parolin should resign.

“I don’t
think he has faith. He is just a good diplomat in a very secular, mundane
meaning,” Cardinal Zen told Reuters. “They’re giving the flock into
the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal.”

Cardinal Parolin,
meanwhile, told reporters Sept. 20 the Vatican is “convinced that this is
a step forward. We are not so naive as to think that from now on everything is
going to go well, but it seems to us that this is the right direction.” 

Although Greg
Burke, director of the Vatican press office, said the agreement is pastoral,
not political, it is seen as a step in the long efforts to re-establish full
diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China. The two have not had formal
diplomatic ties since shortly after China’s 1949 communist revolution.

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