Provisional agreement between China and Holy See raises many questions, highlights tensions

The central question is whether the Church can trust this Chinese government, and whether Chinese Catholics can trust this Papal administration not to give away the store.

A priest hears confession on Holy Thursday, March 29, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing. (CNS photo/Damir Sagolj, Reuters)

The Holy See and the People’s Republic of China announced a provisional agreement on questions of common interest on Saturday.

Under the terms of the deal, Pope Francis “readmit[s] to full ecclesial communion the remaining ‘official’ Bishops, ordained without Pontifical Mandate: H.E. Mgr Joseph Guo Jincai, H.E. Mgr Joseph Huang Bingzhang, H.E. Mgr Paul Lei Shiyin, H.E. Mgr Joseph Liu Xinhong, H.E. Mgr Joseph Ma Yinglin, H.E. Mgr Joseph Yue Fusheng, H.E. Mgr Vincent Zhan Silu and H.E. Mgr Anthony Tu Shihua, OFM (who, before his death on 4th January 2017, had expressed the desire to be reconciled with the Apostolic See).”

The Secretary of State of the Holy See, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, released a note explaining the purpose of the accord, and the hopes of the Holy See in making the agreement:

The objective of the Holy See is a pastoral one: the Holy See intends just to create the condition, or to help to create the condition, of a greater freedom, autonomy and organization, in order that the Catholic Church can dedicate itself to the mission of announcing the Gospel and also to contribute to the wellbeing and to the spiritual and material prosperity and harmony of the country, of every person and of the world as a whole.

Pope Francis has also taken the step of erecting a new suffragan diocese of Beijing, the See of Chengde, in the province of Hebei. Another statement from the Holy See Press Office details that the territory of the new diocese encompasses the current civil boundaries of Chengde City, including eight rural Districts: Chengde, Xinglong, Pingquan, Luanping, Longhua, Fengning, Kuancheng and Weichang — and three Administrative Divisions Shuangqiao, Shuangluan and Yingshouyingzikuang. There is no word on who the bishop of the newly erected Diocese of Chengde will be.

Sources inside the Vatican’s communications department do not expect the text of the agreement to be forthcoming, though Cardinal Parolin in his statement stressed the provisional nature of the accord:

[F]or the first time all the Bishops in China are in communion with the Bishop of Rome, with the Successor of Peter. And Pope Francis, like his immediate Predecessors, looks with particular care to the Chinese People. What is required now is unity, is trust and a new impetus; to have good Pastors, recognized by the Successor of Peter – by the Pope – and by the legitimate civil Authorities. And we believe – we hope, we hope – that the Agreement will be an instrument just for these objectives, for these aims, with the cooperation of all.

Press Office Director Greg Burke is with Pope Francis, who left Rome Saturday morning on a four-day trip to the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Burke told reporters travelling with the Holy Father on Saturday, “This is not the end of a process, it’s the beginning. This has been about dialogue: patient listening on both sides even when people come from very different standpoints.” Burke went on to say, “The objective of the accord is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.”

Rumors of the deal’s imminent signing have been swirling for months, and on Saturday the world got word the thing is done.

What, precisely, is done, remains unclear in several particulars — but the thing is being touted by both sides as provisional and subject to review. That the precise terms of the accord are to remain undisclosed for now makes it easier for both sides to fudge on their commitments to each other. The question analysts will be asking is: Cui malo? – that is, who stands to be hurt [more] by the circumstance?

Opponents of the deal say it surrenders the liberty of the Church.

The outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen, emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, has been strongly, even spectacularly, critical of the deal. In January, he crashed a weekly General Audience in Paul VI Hall to talk with Pope Francis about his concerns and those of the Catholic community that has been living precariously for decades as an underground Church, because of its members’ refusal to foreswear their loyalty to the Pope as the Church’s Supreme Pastor and Governor.

Earlier this week, Cardinal Zen told the Reuters news agency he thinks the Holy See’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, should step down. “He should resign,” Zen told Reuters, “I don’t think he has faith. He is just a good diplomat in a very secular, mundane meaning.”

Broadly speaking, critics of the deal are frustrated not so much by the fact of it, as by the manner of it — and by the impression it gives, of being another case in which Pope Francis talks a good game about speaking truth to power, and then does a deal with the powerful in the shade.

On the other hand, the crisis of unity in the Church in China is essentially a political one, the resolution of which cannot come without some deft diplomacy.

It is also true that the political culture of China has changed over the past several decades. Adrian Vermeule and Gladden Pappin have described the current state of Chinese political culture as having moved from doctrinaire Communism to “neo-authoritarian Confucianism”. Those authors are admittedly not China experts, but their description tracks with those of people who are. It is also worth noting that authoritarian Confucianism fairly describes the cultural attitude of the Chinese court when Matteo Ricci SJ undertook his great missionary efforts in the country — and found it to be fertile ground in which to plant the seeds of the Gospel.

Historically speaking, secular governments have rarely not had some say in the appointment of bishops. A few crowned heads of Europe had a veto over papal elections as recently as the early 20th century. A young Polish bishop named Karol Wojtyla came lead the Church of Krakow because the Communist authorities in his country rejected the Vatican’s first choice for the See.

The point is not that the deal is a good one — we do not know what kind of deal it is, and won’t until we’ve seen its terms in black and white and seen how well it operates in real life — and it has several strikes against it. The point is that the Church has a long and quietly distinguished history of preserving her institutions, her unity, and what practical liberty she can, in gravely adverse circumstances.

The question is not whether the Church can make a deal with a secular government, in which she cedes some decision-making power over episcopal appointments to the civil authority. The question is whether the Church can trust this Chinese government, and whether Chinese Catholics can trust this Papal administration not to give away the store.

It is said that no one should see how laws or sausages are made.

In this case, we are told the factory has been at work, three shifts a day — for months and months, if not for years — and we are told the product is the best possible, given the stuff of which the sausage is made. It remains to be seen whether anyone is really willing to make a meal of it.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 214 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. Everyone, EVERYONE, glosses over the suffering Bishops and people who have remained faithful, truly faithful even to bloodshed, over this appointment issue. They all seem now disposable in everyone’s minds as they move on to other things.

    Time to move on and talk about important things, like the environment and immigration, plastic in the ocean, and ignore that China’s official Bible for protestants now is a Party friendly text, and next will be Catholic liturgy and homilies.

    The architects of this deal are the same who brought us Francis, MacCarrick, ruined Vignò, and Benedict’s papacy…the smooth talking agnostic or atheist utterly corrup diplomats such as Parolin, and a papacy where the only way we can tell they are lying is when their lips are moving…and who have they sold out to? Highest bidder on whatever issue? Putin on Crimea, Soros on doctrine, the People’s Party on ecclesial office?

  2. “The question is not whether the Church can make a deal with a secular government, in which she cedes some decision-making power over episcopal appointments to the civil authority.”
    Of COURSE that is the question.
    And Mary weeps.

  3. For all the bad press that sausage making gets, has anyone ever had a bad tasting sausage. No.
    I’m wondering if the Church is forbidden there to speak against the death penalty. China’s murder rate is far lower than the average of all Catholic countries…err…because she unwittingly follows Romans 13:4….the Trent catechism and Pope Pius XII.
    Her murder rate is c.point 74 per 100,000. Brazil and Mexico…the two largest and non death penalty Catholic cultures…average about 24 per 100,000 to .74 per 100,000 for China. Honduras and El Salvador are way above all countries worldwide…and are non death penalty.

    • Talking about the murder rate and claiming that the chinese rate is smaller because they follow an old interpretation of catholic doctrine is just nuts. Your fixation on this is just weird.

      • Your fixation on me is far weirder…but I understand Pope idolatry when it is based on grandfather attachment even though my grandfathers kept calling me by the wrong first name until I came into some money.

        • ps…China offends God in many areas but it is conquering poverty according to Bill Gates in today’s ny times:

          “But these investments pay off. In 1990, the typical Chinese young person received an eighth-grade education. Now, as a result of government investments in the school system, he or she receives some college education. In 1990, one in three Chinese children were chronically malnourished. Now, thanks to increased agricultural productivity and improved health care, it’s fewer than one in 10.
          In India, innovation is leading to remarkable change. The 1960s best seller “The Population Bomb” predicted that “famine and food riots” would “sweep” across the country. What actually swept across India were new agricultural techniques and technologies, and now Indian farmers get almost four times the amount of wheat from the same piece of land as they got 50 years ago.”

  4. The Church’s “Ostpolitik” in the 1970s was a debacle. The intelligence agencies of every Warsaw Pact country (topped by the USSR natch) made the Vatican a hospitable place to conduct operations in the West. And the Catholic Church got nothing that wasn’t already there. Fortunately, in some countries that was a lot. Communist rule had deepened belief in many countries. Why, pray tell, has there been a Christian explosion in China in the last 20 years (Buddhist also)? Surely not because the atheist government wanted it. Chalk this one up as yet another Francis debacle – the “what me worry?” Pope.

  5. “Me, me, me…just like the innocent Jesus…” while the Bergoglian pontificate hands Chinese Catholics into the hands of sadistic secular materialist Communist thugs. It is nothing less than demonic.
    Rome burns, Chinese Catholics are sent into hell all the while Bergoglio plays his fiddle.
    “…it’s all a facade built to advance the most liberal causes: but now not even the liberal media is buying it. This mentally unbalanced Machiavellian freak remains in his post — but for how long?” Rorate Caeli 9/12/18
    Another hour would be far too long.
    Bergoglio has got to go.

  6. I think this is a bad deal. The Chinese Communist government have no intention of allowing true religious freedom as they distrust anything they cannot control. Their barbaric crackdown on the Falun Gong movement is proof of this.

  7. Sounds very much like Germany 1933 to me – rather like that concordat which didn’t turn out too well either. Just today I saw pictures in the paper showing the dismantling and burning of crosses. Obviously nothing has been learned Libera nos a malo

    • The Vatican thought that the concordant with Mussolini would set the pattern for a deal with Hitler> It was quite an error in judgement about the two men. Il Duce simply wanted the problem gone with essentially no expense to himself. That is what he got. Hitler wanted something completely different from what the Vatican, under Pacelli (later Pius XII}, thought he was getting. From the start, Hitler wanted Europe and made no apologies for it in Mein Kampf. For reasons not completely known, the Vatican thought dealing with the Furheur, was part of a process that would work out. Big mistake as we all know. Seems the lesson was not learned before dealing with China. President Xi is little more than Mao warmed over and with a better tailor. The Church is in for interesting times (Chinese definition}.

  8. I just love that Cardinal Zen! He is such a spirited fighter for his Chinese Catholics. He knows the situation on the ground in China better than anyone yet the Vatican ignores him. I don’t. I pray for him every day. Also, I think the CCP will now be emboldened to overrun Hong Kong. They know the Vatican is now mostly comprised of old men with no teeth.

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