A compromise too far?

A compromise too far? Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun
A much-vaunted deal between the Vatican and communist China is eliciting pushback, writes Max Rosner


After years of intermittent talks, the Holy See and Chinese Communist Party have signed a provisional deal regarding the confirmation and appointment of bishops. Pope Francis has formally recognised seven bishops originally appointed by the communist authorities without Vatican approval.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State insisted that “for the first time, all the bishops in China are in communion with the Bishop of Rome”. This move, which has drawn criticism from several Church leaders, was allegedly a non-negotiable point for the Chinese government. The agreement could put to rest a source of major tension between the two states since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Recently, this tension came to a head when several Chinese bishops were excommunicated under Pope Benedict XVI because of their unyielding loyalty to the state.

The agreement, the details of which will be kept private, also incorporates concessions made by the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. Most significantly, Mr Xi will recognise the Pontiff as the leader of the Catholic Church in China. No religious leader has ever received this designation from the communists, since the president is customarily the leader of all civil organisations.


The Vatican and Beijing have also established a system for future episcopal appointments within China. Under the agreement, the Communist Party would have the power to nominate a set of three bishops for each vacancy, from which the Pope would make his appointment. In keeping with standard protocol, the Pope would formally give the letter of appointment to each bishop, thereby preserving the relationship between the Pontiff and the other bishops in communion with him.

This arrangement, though unorthodox, is not unprecedented. In other times throughout the Church’s history, non-papal actors have taken on important roles in episcopal appointments. During the era of the Papal States, secular leaders from Catholic states would advise the Pope directly on episcopal appointments. This reciprocal relationship even extends to the present day. In 1996, the Vatican reached an agreement with the communist regime in Vietnam under which the Pope nominates three replacements and Hanoi chooses one of the respective candidates.

Given the current secrecy surrounding the Chinese agreement, there is still uncertainty regarding a number of topics, including the status of China’s underground Church. There are an estimated 10 million Catholics in China, nearly half of whom belong to unofficial underground congregations.

Currently, the only state-recognised Catholic association in China is the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which recognises the state’s supremacy over any religious institution.

In 2017 Francis removed two underground bishops and replaced them with government-approved, formerly-excommunicated leaders. Reportedly, both underground bishops refused to step aside.

Another looming question surrounding the deal is the future of diplomatic relations between Beijing and the Vatican. Currently, the Holy See along with 17 nations recognise the Taiwanese government, and not the Communist Party, as the legitimate government of China.

A party spokesman “stressed that the ongoing negotiations will stay on the religious level, and will not touch on any diplomatic issue such as the establishment of diplomatic ties between Beijing and the Vatican”. Regardless, Catholic and diplomatic leaders in Taiwan are concerned that this deal is a harbinger of fraught relations to come.

The impending deal has elicited pushback from several bishops and human rights activists. Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong, called the current deal a betrayal to underground believers who have thus far refused to accept the authority of the state’s Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. In an interview Cardinal Zen questioned, “how can we ever trust the Communist Party to nominate a bishop?” He even warned that such an agreement will lead to a schism throughout the Chinese-speaking world.

His concern is not unique. An open letter backed by 15 theologians, academics and lawyers questions the validity of foreign-government involvement in the episcopal process. They cautioned that complying with the CPC would be an “irreversible and regrettable mistake”.

The deal arrives at a time of great controversy surrounding the religious question in the Middle Kingdom. The National Religious Affairs Administration recently affirmed its ban on evangelistic activities, which led to the removal of religious symbols from places of worship across the Chinese countryside. Additionally, the party’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs, a minority group in Western China, has received international attention. According to reports, millions of Muslims were detained under the guise of “fighting extremism” and promoting “unity and harmony”.

Reports also indicate that the state set up “re-education” camps aimed at building stronger loyalty to the state. These actions fall under Mr Xi’s ‘Sinisation’ efforts, or in other words, bringing religious activities closer to the ideology of the state. United Nations officials and experts in Geneva urged the Chinese government to reverse these actions against the Uighur people. A bipartisan group of US legislators pressed President Donald Trump and the State Department to launch sanctions against China, given these violations of religious freedom.

As is widely-known, the Church finds itself in the midst of extraordinary controversy as it signs a deal with China. Clergy sexual abuse and cover-up continue to plague episcopal conferences in Ireland, the United States, Chile, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. The subject of much of that controversy, ex-cardinal of Washington Theodore McCarrick, was a lead negotiator with China in years prior. In July of this year, Francis received McCarrick’s resignation and ordered him to a life of prayer and penance due to his sexual abuse of minors and clergyman.

Although China and the Church espouse  different views of religion, this deal could spark a dialogue on shared ethical concerns. Environmental stewardship has been a flagship of Mr Xi’s presidency and Francis’ papacy. Mr Xi stressed sustainable development at the recent party congress while the Pope’s landmark environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ continues to guide his temporal leadership around the world.

Both leaders have also declared war on corruption. Over the past six years more than 100 high-ranking party officials and Chinese civil servants have been arrested on corruption charges. Pope Francis recently warned bishops against clericalism, or in other words, the power separation between clergy and laypeople. On an international level, Pope Francis insists that one could not simultaneously believe in God and be a member of the mafia.

For now, the agreement is private and provisional, giving both parties ample flexibility moving forward. Greg Burke, the Vatican spokesman, affirmed the possibility of future changes and added, “this has been about dialogue, patient listening on both sides, even when people come from very different standpoints”. Nevertheless, it seems these once distant institutions, which together represent one-third of the world’s population, are on the verge of a new epoch of cooperation.

Max Rosner is a postgraduate student at Trinity College Dublin where he studies intercultural theology. His research centres on Catholic-China relations.