The draft of an agreement between the Vatican City and Beijing on the appointment of Chinese bishops is ready and the final text could be signed in a few months.
The breakthrough in relations between the Holy See and China comes after Pope Francis decided to accept the legitimacy of seven bishops appointed by the Chinese government, a concession that the Vatican hopes will lead Beijing to recognise the Pope’s authority as head of the Catholic Church in China.
The Vatican does not have diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, it recognises the independence of Taiwan), but the two sides are reportedly moving closer to an agreement that could pave the way for a full rapprochement.
An even partial resolution of the thorny issue of who gets to appoint bishops could open the way for a resumption of diplomatic relations nearly 70 years after they were cut during Mao Zedong’s Communist takeover of China.
Full relations would give the Catholic Church a legal framework to look after all of China’s estimated 12 million Catholics and move on to focus on Catholic growth in a country where Protestant churches are already growing fast.
Catholics in China are split between those in “underground” communities that recognise the authority of the Vatican and those belonging to a state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association where bishops are appointed by the Communist government in collaboration with local Church communities.
Under the formal deal, the Vatican will have a say in negotiations for the appointment of future bishops.
In December, with papal backing, a Vatican delegation went to China to make an offer relating to two Vatican-recognized bishops.
An 87-year-old unnamed prelate would retire to make way for a China-backed bishop to succeed him. Under the scenario, the government would officially recognise the Vatican-backed prelate as “bishop emeritus”.
Another Vatican-recognised bishop would become an auxiliary, or assistant, to one who had been appointed by the government. He would effectively take on a lesser role, however, for the government to grant him official recognition as part of the deal.
There currently was “a gentleman’s agreement” on seven government-backed bishops who would be made legitimate after seeking a papal pardon, but this still has yet to be formalised.
Dossiers have to be prepared for the Pope in order to make a case for legitimising the Chinese bishops.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, 86, the outspoken former bishop of Hong Kong, caused a stir earlier in February with a Facebook post highly critical of the Vatican’s recent overtures to China.
“Do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, definitely, if they go in the direction, which is obvious from all they are doing in recent years and months,” Zen wrote.
In a sharply worded statement following the post, the Vatican said it was surprising and regrettable that some people in the Church were “fostering confusion and controversy”.
Zen, who has often criticised the Vatican’s attempt at rapprochement with Beijing, suggested that Vatican diplomats are keeping the pontiff in the dark and going against his own wishes.