March 27, 2023

According to joint statements, China and the Vatican have agreed to extend a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops in the Asian country for another two years.

China and the Vatican extend agreement two more years…
China and the Vatican extend agreement two more years…

According to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, the decision was made after “friendly consultations” on Saturday. He did not go into detail about the agreement, which the Vatican had previously stated was private.

“The two sides will… work to ensure that the provisional agreement is properly implemented and that the process of improving relations continues,” Wang added.

Wang’s remarks came after the Vatican announced the agreement’s renewal in a statement on Saturday.

According to a statement issued by the Holy See Press Office, the Vatican is committed to continuing “respectful and constructive dialogue” with China in order to implement the agreement and “further develop bilateral relations, with a view to fostering the mission of the Catholic Church and the good of the Chinese people.”

This is the second time the two-year secret agreement has been extended. The agreement was signed in September 2018 and will be extended in October 2020.

The Holy See has no diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Who nominates church officials in China?

It appears that the Chinese Communist Party has the power.

According to sources close to the process, the pope’s approval of a candidate may come before or after the CPCA’s final decision, or even not at all, effectively leaving Rome with the choice of accepting Chinese appointments as they happen, or else face a renewed schism between Rome and the CPCA — the Chinese ecclesial association which oversees the Church in China, and which has long appointed bishops in China without Vatican approval. That practice was supposed to end with the 2018 Vatican-China agreement.

Cui, it should be noted, is reportedly close to the Beijing government, and has been selected by the Chinese Communist Party for several ecclesiastical oversight roles.

If Chinese bishops are still being appointed and consecrated without formal or prior papal agreement, it would suggest that, three years after the Vatican-China deal was signed, Beijing has secured Vatican recognition of the formerly schismatic CPCA and its bishops, while offering up no apparent concessions in return.

While Francis has made it clear that he will not walk away from the negotiating table, or the Vatican-China deal, it seems increasingly clear that the pope accepts China has outmaneuvered the Church.

In an interview last week, Francis acknowledged that the progress made on appointing bishops under the Vatican China deal had produced “questionable results.” He also appeared to accept that Beijing was not a reliable party to do business with. Nevertheless, the pope recommitted himself, and the Church, to continue with the diplomatic process.

“China is not easy, but I am convinced that we should not give up dialogue,” Francis said. “You can be deceived in dialogue, you can make mistakes, all that… but it is the way.”

If Beijing is betting the pope will accept effective control by the CPCA of the Church in China rather than declare another schism, there are signs they are likely right.

But the increasingly public way in which the CCPA is flexing control over episcopal appointments is costing the Vatican “face” over the already unpopular deal.

Rome is not without diplomatic countermoves it could make, if it wanted to push back on China.

If Pope Francis wants a dialogue with the mainland that respects the Holy See as a real partner, he may have to consider thinking outside the box.

While the “sinicization of religion” in China is a policy aim for President Xi Jinping, far higher on his list of priorities is the diplomatic isolation of the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan, which Beijing considers to be a rebel province.

Taiwanese annexation, or “reunification” in the mind of China, has long among Xi’s overriding ambitions as president. As Beijing makes the derecognition of Taiwan a condition for trade and investment deals, the Holy See has become the last major world diplomatic power to formally acknowledge Taiwan as a sovereign state.

Although the Holy See technically has full bilateral diplomatic relations with Taiwan, for years its embassy has not had a nuncio assigned to lead its mission. Instead, the nunciature has been led by a charge d’affairs since 1971.

If Pope Francis wanted to signal his dissatisfaction with the way China is managing episcopal appointments on the mainland, the threat of appointing an ambassador to Taiwan might be enough to make Beijing take more seriously its obligations in the Vatican-China.

It would be a highly unusual move by the Vatican, but little about Vatican-China relations is normal.

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