A secretive 2018 agreement between Beijing and the Vatican was renewed yesterday, despite strident US condemnation and warnings from underground Chinese priests loyal to Rome that they have only become more marginalized since it was signed.
The deal allows both Beijing and the Holy See a say in appointing bishops in an attempt to close a schism in China’s 12-million-strong Catholic community.
Washington had put intense pressure on the Vatican to scrap the pact, saying it has failed to shield Chinese Catholics from persecution.
“After friendly consultations,” both sides agreed to the extension “for two years,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) told reporters yesterday. “The two sides will maintain close communication and consultation, and continue to push forward the process of improving relations.”
Confirming the renewal, the Vatican said in a statement that the accord had had a “positive impact,” although a commentary in the Holy See’s official newspaper acknowledged “many situations of great suffering” in China.
“The Holy See is deeply aware of this, takes it into account and does not fail to draw the attention of the Chinese government to encourage a more fruitful exercise of religious freedom,” it said.
While some have hailed the deal as a pragmatic compromise, others fear that China’s underground churches will become even more marginalized.
“The situation has not improved at all,” one underground priest in Jiangxi Province recently told reporters.
The priest, who withheld his name over security concerns, said that he had been banned by the government from carrying out his church duties.
The renewal of the agreement would leave Catholics feeling “helpless and hopeless,” he said.
There was a potential sign of that pressure earlier this month when auxiliary bishop Vincenzo Guo Xijin (郭希錦) of the Mindong Diocese in Fujian Province abruptly resigned.
A person familiar with the matter said that Guo had resigned in protest after coming under pressure to join the state-run church, as the 2018 deal required bishops to do.
Other underground figures, including Bishop Augustine Cui Tai (崔泰), remain detained or under house arrest.
The deal’s supporters argue that it was never meant to address all outstanding issues, but was an important first step and largely beneficial to Chinese Catholics.
Priests and dioceses in the Chinese state church did not respond to interview requests, but one of them, Paul Han Qingping of Hebei Province, wrote a blog post late last month supporting a renewal of the agreement.
“As the barriers ... have been removed, bishops in China are now able to come together more often in collaboration and consultation in solving Church issues,” he wrote, but admitted that some unofficial clergy remain resistant.
Critics — including retired Cardinal Joseph Zen (陳日君) of Hong Kong — have accused the Vatican of betraying its values to appease China.
That meant the underground community “practically disappeared,” Zen said. “That’s not victory, that’s a defeat — complete defeat.”
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