Vatican’s Renewal of Pact on Chinese Bishops: ‘Disgraceful’ or Diplomatic?

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Catholic commentators are weighing in on the Vatican’s decision to renew a deal with China on the appointment of Catholic bishops in the officially atheist communist nation.

While some have spoken out against the Vatican’s decision, describing it as “disgraceful,” others characterized it as strategically necessary for the good of the Catholic Church despite not entirely agreeing with it.

The deal, originally signed in 2018 and renewed for a second time on Saturday, essentially allows the Chinese Communist Party to participate in selecting Catholic bishops, though Pope Francis has the “final say,” the Associated Press reported. The details of the deal are not publicly available.

“Pope Francis’s Chinese policy is the product of the inherited Argentinian attitude of hostility to the United States, which leads him to seek allies among the U.S.’s enemies for their own sake,” Henry Sire, author of the 2018 book “The Dictator Pope: The Inside Story of the Francis Papacy,” told The Daily Signal in an email, adding:

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It is the same policy which caused him to want a rapprochement with Russia, and which now prevents him from condemning the invasion of Ukraine.

Both policies have proved disastrous, yet he shows what a stubborn man he is by sticking to them, regardless of the consequences. Remember that his slogan has always been “Make a mess,” and in that at least he has been successful.

In a statement announcing the deal’s renewal, the Vatican said it is “committed to continuing a respectful and constructive dialogue” with China.

“After appropriate consultation and assessment, the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China have agreed to extend for another two years the provisional agreement regarding the appointment of bishops, which was signed on 22 September 2018 and previously extended on 22 October 2020,” the Vatican said in a statement.

“The Vatican party is committed to continuing a respectful and constructive dialogue with the Chinese party for a productive implementation of the accord and further development of bilateral relations, with a view to fostering the mission of the Catholic Church and the good of the Chinese people,” the statement continued. 

Francis previously spoke out about the deal during an interview with Reuters in July, saying it was “moving well” and that he hoped it would be renewed in October.

In the same interview, Francis compared the deal’s opponents to those who expressed opposition to deals made during the 1960s and the 1970s by Popes John XXII and Paul VI with Eastern Europe’s then-communist nations.

“Diplomacy is like that. When you face a blocked situation, you have to find the possible way, not the ideal way, out of it,” Francis said. “Diplomacy is the art of the possible and of doing things to make the possible become a reality.”

However, Phil Lawler, the editor of Catholic World News, slammed the deal’s second extension in an email to The Daily Signal as a “disgraceful surrender of religious freedom and a betrayal of the loyal Chinese Catholics who are still suffering repression.”

“The agreement was supposedly designed to ensure the appointment of reliable Catholic bishops. But in four years, only six new bishops have been appointed,” he said. 

“There are more Catholics bishops (eight) currently in prison or house arrest in China, and nearly 40 dioceses without bishops,” said Lawler, adding:

The agreement is a manifest failure. Yet Vatican officials have shown every indication that they are determined to continue the accord. So, the negotiation appears one-sided. The Vatican is obviously prepared to compromise; Beijing just as obviously is not.

Stephen Schneck, appointed by President Joe Biden in June as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, also expressed his distress over the deal, saying the commission is “tremendously disappointed” by the Vatican’s decision and called on the Holy See to “rethink its decision.”

Schneck retired from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 2018, after more than 30 years as a professor, department chair, and dean, according to the commission.

“I certainly understand as a Catholic that the Vatican is playing the long game here and not thinking about the immediate circumstances, but I think that these agreements have not produced any improvement in religious freedom for Catholics in China,” Schneck told Crux, a Catholic website, “and I think that the Holy See should really rethink its decision to dance with [Chinese President Xi Jinping] on this whole business.”

Chad Pecknold, an associate professor of systematic theology at Catholic University, advised caution in reporting on the deal.

“The only thing I would say is that the Vatican has the oldest diplomatic corps in the world, and they have a long history of making concordats with governments which are, to various degrees, at odds with Catholic teaching,” Pecknold told The Daily Signal in an email.

“The goal of these concordats is always the salvation of souls, and so whatever agreements the Vatican reaches with countries, it does so according to a different calculus than nations,” he said. 

Pecknold added:

I don’t believe the details of the concordat are public, but I have seen much ignorant speculation about investiture, and other alleged compromises.

I would counsel caution in reporting, since it’s a grave temptation to think the Vatican should act in the world, according to the measure of whatever is current in American foreign policy.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, a former archbishop of Manila, defended the decision by Francis to renew the deal with China in an interview with Vatican News, citing the need to “reassure, comfort, and enliven” Catholics living in China.

“The reason for everything is to safeguard the valid apostolic succession and the sacramental nature of the Catholic Church in China,” Tagle said. “And this can reassure, comfort, and enliven baptized Catholics in China.”

The Chinese Communist Party has a history of targeting Christians. 

“Since 1949, the Catholic Church has been forced underground by the Communist Party. Dozens of Catholics and other Christian denominations have been persecuted, harassed, jailed, tortured and died in jail,” Erin Walsh, a senior research fellow for international relations at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal in an email. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)

“Since Xi Jinping came to office in 2012, things became worse, as he is a fierce Marxist-Leninist. The Communist Party is the highest order,” Walsh said, adding: 

Things have continued to get worse for Christians. Churches, Bibles, crosses [have been] removed. State-sponsored priests and bishops give sermons that include Xi Jinping thought and propaganda.

Children under 18 are forbidden to attend Mass. Many have been forced to take down pictures of Jesus in their homes and replace them with pictures of Xi. 

A 90-year-old retired archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen, was arrested in May for “conspiracy to collude with foreign forces.”

Zen was arrested along with five others for reportedly failing to correctly register the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, an organization that helped pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong during 2019 and 2020, The Washington Examiner reported

Pastor Wang Yi, who founded the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China, and was arrested in December 2018, is another example of China’s unrelenting religious persecution.

He and about 100 other members of his congregation were charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” which is “a charge often given to Christians who do not fit the Communist Party’s ideological mold,” The Daily Signal previously reported.

Wang was convicted in December 2019 and sentenced to nine years in prison for “illegal business operations” and “inciting to subvert state power,” according to Christianity Today.

The Vatican did not immediately respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment.

Have an opinion about this article? To sound off, please email letters@DailySignal.com and we’ll consider publishing your edited remarks in our regular “We Hear You” feature. Remember to include the url or headline of the article plus your name and town and/or state. 

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