The Vatican and China on Thursday extended a controversial accord on the appointment of bishops in China.
The Holy See and the Chinese communist regime jointly announced an extension to the 2018 agreement, which expired Thursday. The Vatican defended the extension by saying the agreement was purely ecclesiastic and pastoral in nature.
“The two parties have agreed to extend the experimental implementation phase of the Provisional Agreement for another two years,” the Holy See said in a statement.
The 2018 agreement, which until recently hadn’t ever been made public, gave the Chinese regime the authority to appoint bishops, which the Pope would retain the right to veto, a source familiar with the negotiations stated, according to a 2019 report (pdf) of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
L’Osservatore Romano, a daily Vatican newspaper, reported that “processes for new episcopal appointments are underway,” according to the Catholic News Agency. It reported that two bishops in China have already been nominated under the agreement, one in Inner Mongolia, one in Shaanxi Province.
Beijing foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily briefing Thursday that China and the Vatican decided to extend the agreement “after friendly consultations.”
“The two sides will maintain close communication and consultations and continue to promote the process of improving relations,” he said.
Persecution of Catholics in China
The congressional report states that in 2019 “local Chinese authorities subjected Catholic believers in China to increasing persecution by demolishing churches, removing crosses, and continuing to detain underground clergy.”
The Chinese Communist Party-led Catholic national religious organizations also published a plan to ‘‘sinicize’’ Catholicism in China, the report said.
The Chinese regime denies religious education to anyone under the age of 18 and even prohibits minors to enter churches, reported the Catholic News Agency, and monitors church buildings with surveillance cameras.
Christian churches in China received instructions from the regime to replace images of the Ten Commandments with quotes from Mao Zedong and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping, according to the Catholic News Agency.
The Vatican signed the agreement in 2018 in the hope that it would help unite China’s Catholics, who for seven decades have been split between those belonging to an official, state-sanctioned church and an underground church loyal to Rome. The agreement would allow the regime to also appoint bishops hailing from a state-backed Church.
The Holy See has defended the 2018 accord against criticism that Pope Francis sold out the underground faithful, saying the deal was necessary to prevent an even worse schism in the Chinese church after Beijing named bishops without the pope’s consent.
Criticism of 2018 Vatican-China Accord
Longtime CCP critic Cardinal Joseph Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, told the Cantonese channel of Voice of America on Wednesday that there must be a political motive behind the Vatican deal with China.
“[The Vatican] really thinks that one day it can build diplomatic relations with China. When there is a negotiation, it means there is hope for the establishment of formal relations.” Zen said.
Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin told journalists that the agreement would not be made public and it does not foresee the establishment of diplomatic relations with China, according to Catholic News Agency.
In September, Zen, 88, traveled to the Vatican hoping to meet the Pope to update him on the situation in Hong Kong and the Catholic Church in China, reported Daily Compass.
“The idea of striking accords with Beijing is insane,” Zen told Daily Compass about the Vatican-China deal. “It’s like trying to make a pact with the devil.”
Zen was not able to get an audience with Pope Francis and had to return after four days, Daily Compass reported.
The question of bishop nominations has long vexed Vatican-China relations, with the Holy See insisting on the pope’s divine right to name the successors of the apostles and Beijing considering such nominations foreign infringement on its sovereignty.
The Vatican has been vigorously defending the agreement in recent weeks after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly criticized it and urged the Holy See not to extend it.
During a tense visit to the Vatican last month and in an essay penned before the trip, U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo made clear U.S. objections to the accord and urged the Vatican to join the United States in denouncing China’s crackdown on religious and ethnic minorities, Catholics among them.
The Vatican has rarely if ever, called out China for its cracking down on religious minorities and other human rights abuses, and it has stayed mum during months of protests in Hong Kong. It similarly rarely criticizes Russia, for fear of harming relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Vatican and the CCP broke off relations in 1951. The CCP has since insisted on nominating its own bishops, despite Vatican tradition that mandates bishops can only be approved with the consent of the Pope.
The number of Catholics in China is estimated at around 10.5 million according to the 2019 congressional report.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.