Are Vatican, China close to agreement on bishop selection?

Proposed compromise could draw fierce protests from Chinese Catholics
A Chinese Catholic prays on Easter Sunday at the state-sanctioned Saint Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai in 2005. PHOTO: REUTERS

A Chinese Catholic prays on Easter Sunday at the state-sanctioned Saint Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai in 2005. PHOTO: REUTERS

The following comes from an October 30 Wall Street Journal article by Francis X. Rocca And Chun Han Wong:

VATICAN CITY—Negotiators for the Vatican and Beijing reached a compromise on who selects Catholic bishops in China, said people familiar with the matter, potentially marking a major step toward ending six decades of estrangement.

If Pope Francis and Chinese leaders sign off on the proposed deal, the pope would accept eight bishops ordained by the Chinese government without the Vatican’s permission. But the deal would leave many other issues unresolved, including the role of China’s state-run Catholic institutions.

Negotiators are waiting for the pope’s decision; if he agrees, the final decision will be up to Beijing. It would be a diplomatic breakthrough for the pope, who has eagerly pursued an opening to China that eluded his predecessors, though re-establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican—which Beijing severed in 1951—would remain a distant goal.

Vatican officials, however, are bracing for strong protests from Chinese Catholics in the so-called underground church, some of whose members have suffered imprisonment or other punishment for defying government control of the church, and who could regard the agreement as a lopsided win for Beijing and hence a betrayal of their fidelity.

The deal would defer many thorny issues, including the legal status of underground Chinese bishops loyal to Rome, who currently operate without government approval.

China requires all Catholics to register with the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a state-controlled body that supervises the mainland Catholic community but isn’t recognized by the Vatican. The country’s Catholic population, which is estimated to number at least 10 million today, remains divided between official and unregistered underground communities.

The Vatican and China have engaged in quiet negotiations since the late 1980s, and under St. John Paul II, adopted an informal arrangement for the mutual recognition of bishops. But over the past decade, Chinese authorities have periodically violated that understanding by unilaterally ordaining bishops without Rome’s permission. Today, eight of the bishops in the state-run Chinese bishops’ conference remain unrecognized by the pope.

Beijing has insisted that Pope Francis recognize these eight bishops—three of whom have been formally excommunicated by the Vatican—as a precondition for the agreement on future episcopal ordinations.

The agreement would allow Chinese authorities to present a set of candidates for the role of bishop of a particular diocese. The pope would then choose among the candidates or reject all the options and demand fresh names. The Vatican would demand the freedom to investigate candidates’ backgrounds thoroughly as a condition for their approval.

“The Chinese government would still retain effective control over who becomes a bishop,” said Ren Yanli, a Catholicism specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “The final word remains with the Chinese government.”

Members of the underground community could protest strongly.

“If the Vatican should be perceived as abandoning them, it could be seen as a betrayal” and “cause serious divisions in the Chinese Catholic Church,” said Richard Madsen, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. “The government would probably actually like this. Its action over the years show that it would like to see the church weakened, and a deeper division in the church would help accomplish that.”

Vatican negotiators remain apprehensive. While they believe a resolution before the end of November is possible, they are uncertain of Beijing’s intentions. President Xi Jinping ’s government has been less confrontational toward the Catholic Church in the past two years, but the Patriotic Catholic Association and the State Administration for Religious Affairs have traditionally housed hard-liners unwilling to see the Vatican encroach on their authority or that of Beijing.

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