The Vatican and China have been at odds for decades. At the center of their spat: who has the right to nominate bishops.
The Church’s own rules give that authority solely to the Pope. But the Chinese government insists it has the right: Even though it’s atheist, it officially runs the Catholic Church in the country. So, each set of bishops has operated independently, leading two sets of churches, one sanctioned by the state, the other underground.
Today, in a major concession, the Vatican agreed to recognize seven bishops appointed by the Chinese government. It’s part of a provisional agreement under which both Beijing and the Pope will have a say on who becomes a bishop.
Neither of the two parties released details on the deal. It is unclear how much power the Pope will ultimately have over Beijing’s choices.
“For the first time all the bishops in China are in communion with the bishop of Rome, with the successor of Peter,” said cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state.
The deal could help to pave the way for the eventual reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China, which were broken off in 1951. Its signing comes despite pleas from certain sectors of the church not to give in to an authoritarian regime with a history of religious persecution. The agreement doesn’t spell out what will happen to the bishops and churchgoers who now practice their faith in underground churches.
“They’re giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves,” Hong Kong cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken critic of a rapprochement with China, told Reuters. “It’s an incredible betrayal.”
The Vatican seems to have made a different calculation: Being on good terms with the Chinese government will give it more leeway to defend its market share in a country with promising growth potential. There are some 10 to 12 million Catholics in China, but Protestantism has been making bigger inroads.