On September 22, the Vatican announced that it had reached a provisional agreement with the Chinese government regarding the appointment of bishops. The agreement was the fruit of years of negotiation between the two countries on the role of governance of the Catholic Church in China.
Previously, there had been two organizations claiming to represent the Catholic Church: the Patriotic Catholic Church, under the authority of the Communist government, and an underground network of Catholics under the authority of Rome. The main debate has been over the appointment of bishops, as the Chinese government has fiercely opposed a foreign entity having control over religious activities within its borders. With this agreement, the Vatican recognizes seven bishops appointed by the Patriotic Church, which had previously been out of communion with the Holy See. Going forward, the Vatican and the Chinese government will select bishops and the Pope will have veto power over the nominees.
However, bishops of the underground Church exists in limbo, as they are recognized by the Vatican but not by the state. The Vatican is pushing for the government to recognize 12 bishops by December.
The Vatican has been attempting to find a way to reconcile with the state-sponsored church since the papacy of Pope St. John Paul II. The dialogue came after the break of diplomatic relationships in 1951. In a recent letter to Chinese Catholics, Pope Francis said that the years of dialogue had the aim of “attain[ing] the Church’s specific spiritual and pastoral aims, namely, to support and advance the preaching of the Gospel, and to reestablish and preserve the full and visible unity of the Catholic community in China.” Pope Francis says the provisional agreement is an “unprecedented process that we hope will help to heal the wounds of the past, restore full communion among all Chinese Catholics, and lead to a phase of greater fraternal cooperation in order to renew our commitment to the mission of proclaiming the Gospel.”
There have been critics of the agreement, especially from the former bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Cardinal Zen, who has been openly critical of any compromise with the Chinese government. He claimed in an interview with Reuters, “They’re giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal.” Cardinal Zen also said that Pope Francis does not understand the Communist Party and that “[one] can never have a truly good agreement with a totalitarian regime.”
Despite the rapprochement, the Chinese government has recently destroyed two Marian shrines. Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows and Our Lady of Bliss were popular places of pilgrimage for both the underground and state-sponsored churches. The government claimed that the demolitions were due to the lack of proper building permits; however, local Catholics said that it was a part of the government’s continuing project to bring religion more in line with its view of culture and history. These demolitions are just the latest in a string of church demolitions which have not let up in the wake of the provisional agreement.