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Rome meets Beijing

The Vatican’s new deal with China gives Communist leaders more control over Catholicism in the country

Rome meets Beijing

The Sacred Heart Cathedral, or Shishi Catholic Church, in Guangzhou, China. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

As the Chinese government demolishes crosses, closes unregistered churches, and controls religion more tightly than at any time since the Cultural Revolution, the Vatican has reached a provisional deal with Communist officials that could lead to the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and the Catholic Church.

The Vatican announced Sept. 22 that the two sides have agreed on how to appoint bishops: Pope Francis agreed to recognize seven bishops appointed by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), and in exchange, the Vatican would have a say in how future bishops are chosen. (See this earlier China Snapshot for an explainer on China-Vatican relations.)

While the deal would give the pope authority in China for the first time, it would also give the Chinese government greater control of over Catholicism in China, as about half of the country’s 12 million Catholics currently worship in unregistered churches that have remained faithful to the pope. Now the government-sanctioned CPCA will have the backing of the pope, and the future of the underground churches is uncertain.

It’s also uncertain whether the pope or the Chinese government will have final say in choosing bishops, as the agreement has not been made public. Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, a lead negotiator for the Vatican, would not tell The New York Times whether the pope would have veto rights over appointments, only that “the Holy Father gets to say something about the appointment of bishops.”

The Communist Party kicked out the Apostolic Nunciature, which serves as the Vatican’s embassy, in 1951, and forced Catholics to either join the government-run CPCA or go to prison. Underground Catholic churches grew out of the persecution with their own bishops who were either confirmed by the pope or by older approved bishops.

Recent negotiations began in earnest in 2016 under Pope Francis, who has desired to repair ties with China. The seven illegitimate bishops were a sticking point in the negotiations: The CPCA chose its own bishops not sanctioned by Rome (some of the bishops had children or girlfriends). Those bishops were subsequently excommunicated from the Catholic Church because they didn’t operate under the authority of the pope.

In a sign of an impending deal, the Vatican asked two underground bishops to step down from their positions earlier this year in order to give way to the CPCA-chosen bishops of the same diocese. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told reporters that the deal “is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.”

Yet one bishop in China told the Catholic news agency AsiaNews that many of his parishioners are disappointed: “There is no trust in the Party, and we are worried about the Vatican’s scant knowledge regarding the Chinese Communist Party.”

In 2016 I spoke with former Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken critic of the deal. He criticized the idea of handing an atheist government the authority to choose priests: “How can they know who is fit for being a bishop?”

After the announcement of the preliminary deal, Zen had strong words. “The consequences will be tragic and long-lasting, not only for the church in China but for the whole church because it damages the credibility,” he told Reuters.

“They’re giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal.”

Banned Hong Kong political party:

For the first time since the 1997 handover, the Chinese government has banned a political party in Hong Kong, claiming its pro-independence stance could harm “national security.” Many fear that banning the Hong Kong National Party, which is largely inactive and represents a fringe idea, is just the first step in dismantling Hong Kong’s freedom of association.