By Francis X. Rocca in Rome and Eva Dou in Beijing
Updated Sept. 14, 2018 12:43 p.m. ET
China and the Vatican are set to sign a landmark agreement later this month ending a long struggle between Beijing’s Communist rulers and the pope over who chooses the leaders of Catholicism in the world’s most populous country, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Reactions to the deal, which gives both sides a say in appointing the church’s bishops in China, are likely to be sharply divided, with some hailing a diplomatic coup by the Vatican that draws China closer to the West and others warning of an important defeat for the principle of religious freedom.
The controversial deal would include the first official recognition by Beijing that the pope is the head of the Catholic Church in China. In return, Pope Francis would formally recognize seven excommunicated Chinese bishops who were appointed by the Communist government without Vatican approval.
“It is a baby step by China toward recognizing some of the framework of the Western world,” said Francesco Sisci, an Italian who teaches international relations at China Renmin University in Beijing. “It doesn’t go as far as recognizing what we in the West call religious freedom but it is a degree of religious autonomy.”
Others, including some U.S. diplomats, are concerned the pope is conceding a strong influence over church leadership to an avowedly atheist authoritarian regime.
“This is a strange step backward on terrain over which the church has fought, not for centuries but millennia,” said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert who writes for Italy’s L’Espresso magazine. “The church has managed to free itself from control of sovereigns and governments on ecclesiastical matters such as the naming of bishops, but now this achievement is clamorously contradicted by the agreement with China.”
The pact with the Vatican could still fall through or be delayed due to unforeseen events, one of the people familiar with the matter said. The two sides are close to signing even though China’s government has recently intensified a crackdown on Christians and other religious groups, through measures including closing churches and removing religious symbols such as crosses and the domes of mosques. The deal is thus expected to stir criticism of the pope already under fire from within and outside the church for his handling of clerical sexual abuse.
In practice, China’s Communist Party is unlikely to give up control over any religion, even Catholicism, which has relatively few adherents in China. Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched a program to “Sinicize” all religions to make sure they don’t offer alternate viewpoints to the Communist Party. As part of that policy, Beijing is strengthening its sway over clerical appointments and religious teachings to emphasize patriotism.
The Chinese leadership has been engaged for years in a campaign to diminish the influence of the Dalai Lama, who remains popular among Tibetans despite nearly six decades in exile. It has also ramped up a mass detention program for Muslims in its northwest region of Xinjiang, where Beijing is worried about violent separatism fanned by militant Islam. Giving the Vatican too much say risks setting a bad precedent in Beijing’s eyes.
The Vatican had hoped to sign the deal in the spring, but needed several more months to overcome resistance from some Chinese Catholics, one of the persons familiar with the matter said. In particular, the bishop of the southeastern diocese of Shantou balked at stepping aside in favor of an excommunicated bishop as part of the agreement, this person said.
Pope Francis’ pursuit of the deal reflects his desire for better relations with China—where Christianity is growing fast, though most new adherents are Protestants—and an end to divisions among Catholics there.
China’s estimated 10 million Catholics are legally supposed to worship only in churches approved by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a state-controlled body not recognized by the Vatican. But many Catholics attend unregistered churches in so-called underground communities led by bishops loyal only to Rome.
Beijing is eager for the publicity boost that mending ties with the Vatican would bring, even as the Communist Party prosecutes a systematic campaign to bring Catholicism and all other religions more firmly under its control.
A new agreement would allow the pope to veto new nominees for bishops proposed by the Chinese government. Beijing’s major condition for signing has been that the pope recognize the seven Chinese bishops excommunicated by Rome over the years.
“The dialogue between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China continues,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said. “There’s nothing else to add at the moment.”
At a routine Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference on Thursday, spokesman Geng Shuang declined to confirm the deal’s status, but said China was sincere in its efforts for better relations with the Vatican.
China broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1951. In recent decades, the two sides have cooperated informally to agree on most bishops appointments, but Beijing has periodically named bishops without the pope’s approval.
At the last meeting of the negotiating teams, in Rome in June, the Vatican assured the Chinese representatives that Pope Francis would sign the necessary document to lift the excommunications of the seven government-appointed bishops and recognize them as the bishops of their dioceses about a week before the deal is signed, said one of the people familiar with the matter.
That recognition would require two bishops who have shunned government control, in the dioceses of Shantou and Mindong, to step aside in favor of government-appointed bishops. They would be the first so-called underground bishops to be asked to do so by the Vatican.
Shantou Bishop Zhuang Jianjian and Mindong Bishop Guo Xijin couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday.
Also as part of the deal, the government is expected to recognize the “underground” bishop of Qiqihar, near the Russian border, one of the people said. Qiqihar Bishop Wei Jingyi couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.
The agreement is explicitly provisional, meaning that it allows for the possibility of revisions after one or two years if either party sees the need. Both parties have agreed that the text of the agreement won’t be published even after it is signed, one of the people said.
Critics of the prospective deal have cast it as a capitulation by the Vatican.
“I would make a cartoon showing the pope kneeling and offering the keys of the kingdom of heaven and saying, ‘Now, please recognize me as pope,’” Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong, told an interviewer in March. “The advisers of the pope are giving him advice to renounce his authority.”
The agreement on bishop appointments would leave unresolved other major questions between the Vatican and China, including the position of most of the more than 30 bishops recognized by Rome but not by Beijing. The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and the Vatican remains a distant goal.