Holy See, view on China: what does the renewal of the agreement mean?

The Holy See and China are negotiating the renewal of the secret agreement for the election of the vescovii, while the trial of Cardinal Zen has been underway for several weeks.

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

Photo: Il Papa e il cardinale Zen si salutano il 10 gennaio 2018. ©CNS/Paul Haring

Testo originale del articolo in inglese qui

It seems now imminent the announcement of the renewal of the Sino-Vatican agreement for the appointment of the vescovi. The agreement, signed in 2018 and renewed in 2020 for another two years. ad experimentumhas never been noticed. Finora has allowed the nomination of six viscovi with the double approval of Pechino and the Holy See, but for two of these viscovi the nomination procedures had already begun. Not an exalting balance. The Pope, however, seems to want to move forward in this path of dialogue. And he has continued to reach out to China. At the moment, a trial is being held in Hong Kong against Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, accused of collusion with foreign forces. 

What is the position of the Holy See? And why does it continue on the path of an agreement?

The trial of Cardinal Zen and the Pope's firm hand

The trial of Cardinal Joseph Zen began on September 26. The cardinal was arrested on May 11, and then released into custody. He is accused of foreign interference, in particular for his participation in a fund, the 612 to help protesters arrested in the protests of 2019. The fund was already closed in 2021. 

The Holy See had just learned of having expressed "with concern" the arrest of Cardinal Zen. The arrest, however, had not even interrupted the lines of dialogue opened for the renewal of the Sino-Vatican agreement. 

On the Vatican side, there was the will to make some changes to the agreement. On the part of the Cinese, instead, it was the will to carry forward the agreement as it was. In the end, it seems that this second option will be the one that will be carried forward. 

As far as Cardinal Zen is concerned, however, the Holy See will continue to follow the situation, but will be careful not to interfere. And this notwithstanding the protests of the cardinals themselves. In particular, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Mueller, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, raised during the August 29-30 meeting the fact that in a month's time an unfair trial would have been held against the Cardinal, asking for a strong arrest. This arrest has not taken place. 

The path of dialogue

The reason why the opposition was not present is then revealed 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 by walking back to Kazakhstan, underlining with the journalists to be always ready to walk in China, and he did it also in an informal way, taking a road to meet President Xi in Astana, when both he and the Kazakh president were in the Kazakh capital.

This meeting did not take place, even if from the Chinese side it is known that there was an appreciation for the Pope's will, not only for the Pope's own words regarding China. It was a sign that the negotiations were going well enough, compatibly with the different needs, and that the signing of an agreement was on the way. 

Always during the trip in Kazakhstan, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, has shown signs of openness regarding a possible upgrade of diplomatic relations with China, stressing to be always open to post from Hong Kong to China the "study mission" of the Holy See on China. These are words that have a weight, and that will be read as a sign of openness to talk also about diplomatic relations. 

It is not intended to have diplomatic relations for the time being. These would imply the need to close relations with Taiwan, which in the past has been a reliable partner for the Holy See. In any case, at the celebrations for the 80th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Taiwan, on October 5, there were many Vatican officials, starting with Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with the States, who gave a brief speech.

Thus, when Cardinal Parolin was asked if the Holy See was ready to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan, he simply replied: "For now things remain as they are". 

At the same time, however, Parolin wanted to launch a signal. The idea is that, after the agreement, a closer relationship between the Holy See and Pechino should begin. We are talking about the establishment of a joint Sino-Vatican committee, which could meet at regular intervals to discuss the progress of the agreement and perhaps outline a road map for further Holy See visits to Pechino.

The renewal of the agreement

The last negotiation round between the Holy See and Pechino was held in Cina from September 28 to 2. 

The place was symbolically important, considering that it is one of the vacant dioceses in Cina, since 2005 without a recognized vestryman. 

The Vatican delegation has also visited the underwater cave Melchiorre Shi Hongzhenwhich is 92 years old. In a world in which everything is written in symbols, it was a strong signal from the Holy See, to show that despite the will to carry forward a dialogue, the situation of Catholics in China was not considered.

On the other hand, the Holy See has also appreciated the availability shown by the Chinese authorities. The delegation of the Holy See was aware of the idea of being able to change some parts of the agreement, but was also aware that the halt in the dialogue due to the pandemic was a sufficient reason to keep things as they were and, at the limit, to further increase the amount of the exchanges.

Perhaps the diplomatic weight of the agreement will be elevered, but even this is all 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, in some way, involved China and the Holy See. In particular, the words of Zhang Jun, China's ambassador to the United Nations, have been noted as important. Speaking of the Ukrainian issue, Zhang stressed: "China's position remains consistent: 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 has also stated that "the confrontation between blocks and sanctions will only lead to a road without exit". 

The Cinese position is similar to that of the Holy See, and there is also the possibility that the Holy See finds in Pechino a sponde to carry forward a solution of peace negotiations in Ukraine. The Holy See, therefore, cannot import its presence as a mediating force, and for the time being neither Russia nor Ukraine intends to take any action. 

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 do so. 

La questione dello Stretto di Taiwan

The question of the Taiwan Strait is more complicated. As it defends the sovereignty of Ukraine, the Holy See defends the sovereignty of Taiwan. 

 In his speech at the 80th anniversary celebration of the Taiwan - Holy See relations, the Ambassador Matthew Lee emphasized that "security in the Taiwan Strait is essential for global peace and stability"."The Taiwanese government has absolutely no intention of creating conflicts, as President Tsai has also emphasized. 

Lee's speech was very clear in sending a signal to the Holy See, highlighting the feelings of friendship and cooperation and underlining the difficulties that can be created 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 be influenced by political-diplomatic issues. Even in this case, the will is that of not making statements that could damage the relations with China.

It should be remembered that on February 14, 2020, the archbishop Gallagher met his Chinese ombudsman Wang Yi in Monaco, on the fringes of the security check. If there were no pandemic, contacts would probably be continued and we would at least attend a Sino-Vatican commission meeting, a stable platform for dialogue that could allow us to move forward with the agreement with the Vatican. 

A renewal of the agreement?

These are all questions that seem destined to remain in the background. Pope Francis defines the document as "pastoral", while from the Holy See it is noted that by virtue of this agreement there are no more illegal immigrants in China, or rather not recognized by Rome. 

This, however, has not led to the end of the process of synizzazione launched by Xi, and reaffirmed at the last congress of the Communist Party, and has increased the pressure on local Catholics to join the Patriot Association.

The Association, founded in 1957, is the governing body where priests must be registered in order to show good will and patriotism. 

At the end of the Tenth National Assembly of Catholic representatives from China, which was held in the now famous city of Wuhan, Bishop Giuseppe Li Shan, Archbishop of Pechino, has been elected president of the Patriot Association, while Monsignor Shen Bin, a priest from Haimen, will lead the Council of the Chinese priests, the collegial body not recognized by the Holy See.

The Li Shan's nomination seems to be a sign of détente, because he was consecrated vescovo in 2007, with the consensus of the Holy See, following a procedure in force before the Sino-Vatican agreement of 2018, which in fact marked a détente of relations outlined in the letter of Benedict XVI to the Catholics of China.

Beyond these signs of détente, however, all the problems of the Holy See in China remain. And they are not easy to solve. 

The authorAndrea Gagliarducci

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