The Vatican

The Holy See and China to renew agreement on the appointment of bishops

The Holy See and China are negotiating the renewal of the secret agreement for the election of bishops, while the trial of Cardinal Zen began a few weeks ago.

Andrea Gagliarducci-October 21, 2022-Reading time: 6 minutes
Pope and Zen

Photo: the Pope and Cardinal Zen greet each other on January 10, 2018. ©CNS/Paul Haring

The announcement of the renewal of the Sino-Vatican agreement for the appointment of bishops seems imminent. The agreement, signed in 2018 and renewed in 2020 for another two years "ad experimentum", has never been made public. So far it has allowed the appointment of six bishops with the dual approval of Beijing and the Holy See, although in two of them the appointment procedures had already begun earlier. Not an exciting balance. The Pope, however, seems to want to move forward on this path of dialogue. And he has continued to reach out to China. In the meantime, a trial is taking place in Hong Kong against the Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiunaccused of collusion with foreign forces. 

What is the position of the Holy See and why is it following the path of an agreement?

Cardinal Zen's trial and the Pope's outstretched hand

The trial of Cardinal Joseph Zen began on September 26. The cardinal had been arrested on May 11, and subsequently released on bail. He is accused of foreign interference, in particular for participating in a savings fund to help protesters arrested in the 2019 protests. The fund had already been dissolved in 2021. 

The Holy See immediately made it known that it had learned "with concern" of the arrest of Cardinal Zen. However, the arrest has not interrupted the lines of dialogue open for the renewal of the Sino-Vatican agreement. 

On the Vatican side, there was a willingness to make some changes to the agreement. On the Chinese side, on the other hand, there was a willingness to continue the agreement as it was. In the end, it seems that it will be this second option that will go ahead. 

For Cardinal Zen, on the other hand, the Holy See will continue to monitor the situation, but will try not to interfere. And this despite the protests of the cardinals themselves. In particular, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had raised during the Consistory of August 29-30 the fact that in a month's time an unjust trial would be held against the cardinal, calling for a firm stance. This position did not take place. 

The path of dialogue

The reason why there was no opposition is then explained by what happened during Pope Francis' trip to Kazakhstan from September 13 to 15. During the trip, Pope Francis wanted to reach out to China. He did so on his return to Kazakhstan, stressing to journalists that he was always willing to go to China, and he also did so informally, seeking a way to meet with President Xi in Astana, when both he and the Chinese president were in the Kazakh capital.

This meeting did not take place, although the Chinese side made it known that the Pope's willingness was appreciated, as well as the Pope's own words about China. It was a sign that the negotiations had gone quite well, compatible with the different needs, and that progress was being made towards the signing of an agreement. 

Also during the trip to Kazakhstan, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, showed signs of openness regarding a possible improvement of diplomatic relations with Beijing, stressing that he was always open to moving the Holy See's "study commission" on China from Hong Kong to Beijing. These are words that carry weight, and should be read as a sign of openness to talk also about diplomatic relations. 

However, full diplomatic relations are not on the horizon. This would imply the need to downgrade relations with Taiwan, which until now has been a reliable partner for the Holy See. It is no coincidence that at the celebrations of the 80th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Taiwan on October 5, numerous Vatican officials were present, starting with Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, who gave a brief speech.

This explains the fact that when Cardinal Parolin was asked if the Holy See was ready to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan, he merely replied, "For now things remain as they are." 

At the same time, however, Parolin wanted to send a signal. The idea is that, following the agreement, a closer relationship between the Holy See and Beijing will be initiated. There is talk of setting up a joint Sino-Vatican committee, which could meet at fixed intervals to discuss the progress of the agreement and perhaps draw up a road map for a closer rapprochement of the Holy See with Beijing.

Renewal of the agreement

The last known round of negotiations between the Holy See and Beijing took place in China on September 28 and 2. The location was symbolically important, considering that it is one of the vacant dioceses in China, without a recognized bishop since 2005. 

The Vatican delegation also visited the underground bishop Melchior Shi Hongzhen, 92 years old. In a world where everything has to be read symbolically, this was a strong signal from the Holy See, showing that, despite the willingness to dialogue, the situation of Catholics in China had not been forgotten.

On the other hand, the Holy See also appreciated the willingness shown by the Chinese authorities. The Holy See delegation went, as it was aware, with the idea of being able to change certain parts of the agreement, but also aware that the halt in dialogue that had occurred because of the pandemic was reason enough to keep things as they were, and at the very least to further increase the amount of exchanges.

Perhaps it will increase the diplomatic value of the agreement, but this also remains to be defined. Certainly, the Holy See seems to be more interested than China in continuing a negotiation process. 

The Ukrainian question in the background

Paradoxically, the crisis in Ukraine has brought China and the Holy See somewhat closer together. In particular, the words of Zhang Jun, China's ambassador to the United Nations, have stood out. In relation to the Ukrainian issue, Zhang stressed, "China's position remains consistent: the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each country must be respected, the principles of the UN Charter must be respected. China has always been on the side of peace, promoting peace and dialogue, and will continue to play a constructive role."

Zhang also said that "confrontation between blockades and sanctions will only lead to a dead end." The Chinese position echoes that of the Holy See, and there is also the possibility that the latter will find in Beijing a crutch to conduct some kind of peace negotiations in Ukraine. The Holy See, for its part, cannot impose its presence as a mediating force, and for now neither Russia nor Ukraine intends to count on it. 

Still, there are many informal activities to try to find a solution to the Ukrainian conflict, and if the Holy See believes that China can be a reliable partner, it will add it to the arrangements. 

The Taiwan Strait issue

The question of the Taiwan Strait is more complex. Just as it defends the sovereignty of Ukraine, the Holy See defends the sovereignty of Taiwan. 

In his speech at the reception for the 80th anniversary of relations between Taiwan and the Holy See, Ambassador Matthew Lee stressed that "security in the Taiwan Strait is crucial for world peace and stability," while stressing that Taiwan has absolutely no intention of creating a conflict, as President Tsai also emphasized. 

Lee's speech was very clear in sending a signal to the Holy See, stressing the sentiments of friendship and cooperation, and underlining the difficulties that may arise at the regional level. From this point of view, the presence of Archbishop Gallagher is interesting, but also the Archbishop's decision in his speech not to get involved in political-diplomatic issues. Even so, there is no desire to make hasty statements that could inflame relations with China.

It should be recalled that Archbishop Gallagher met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Munich on February 14, on the sidelines of the security meeting. If there had been no pandemic, contacts would probably have continued and at least we would see a kind of Sino-Vatican commission, a stable platform for dialogue that would allow the agreement to continue all the way to the Vatican. 

A renewal of the agreement?

All these issues seem destined to remain in the background. Pope Francis calls the document "pastoral," while the Holy See points out that under the agreement there are no longer any illegitimate bishops in China, i.e., not recognized by Rome. 

However, this has not put an end to the process of Shiinization initiated by Xi, and reiterated at the last Communist Party congress, and has increased pressure on local Catholics to join the Patriotic Association. The Association, founded in 1957, is the government body to which priests must register, to demonstrate their goodwill and, indeed, their patriotism. 

Thus, at the end of the 10th National Assembly of Chinese Catholic representatives, held in the now famous city of Wuhan, Monsignor Joseph Li Shan, Archbishop of Beijing, was elected president of the Patriotic Association, while Monsignor Shen Bin, Bishop of Haimen, will head the Council of Chinese Bishops, a collegial body not recognized by the Holy See.

Li Shan's appointment appears to be a sign of détente, as he was consecrated a bishop in 2007, with the consent of the Holy See, under a procedure in place prior to the 2018 Sino-Vatican agreement that marked, in effect, a détente in relations outlined in Benedict XVI's letter to China's Catholics.

However, beyond these signs of improvement, all the problems of the Holy See in China remain. Meanwhile, a trial is being held in Hong Kong against Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, accused of collusion with foreign forces.

The authorAndrea Gagliarducci

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