China-Vatican agreement: a new beginning, a new direction, two small important changes
by Wang Meixiu* (王美秀)

The opinion of Prof. Wang Meixiu, of the National Academy of Social Sciences. Thanks to the agreement, the era of the Church "independence" from the Pope ends. And we need to think of the Patriotic Association as a "voluntary" body in which participation is not obligatory.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - On 22 September the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Vatican Section for Relations between the States of the Holy See reached a "tentative agreement" on the future nomination and appointment of the bishops of China. For the Catholic Church it is a historical turning point, a unique event 70 years after the institution of the People's Republic of China.

Although the details of the agreement have not been disclosed, we can all imagine how after four years of dialogue, the agreement can only be a win-win for both parties.

Compared to its position on the two cardinal principles of relations with the Vatican in the 1980s and 1990s, there has been a very clear change by the Chinese government that cannot be ignored.

We can believe that, within the dialogue between the Chinese government and the Vatican, over the next two or three years (in reference to what was said by Jeroom Heyndrickx to Radio France International, RFI) this agreement will favor the solution of the questions connected with the Chinese Catholic Church, the opening of a road to full communion and harmony between the official and the unofficial community, and with the Pope.

As for the Catholic Church, the request for dialogue with the Chinese government – which begun under the inspiration of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI - with the aim of a full unity of communion for the Church in China - has taken a huge step forward. As is obvious, this dialogue has been the object of attention, analysis and embarrassment for the media and many members of the Church.

This article sets out a reflection on two small changes for the Chinese Catholic Church after the agreement.

The "self-managed" Church

First, after the agreement, the principle of a "self-managed and independent" Chinese Catholic Church has undergone a minor change. In the past, the right of "independent self-management" was not recognized on the appointment of bishops by the Pope, but now the Pope has the last and independent right / power over the nomination of bishops.

Previously, for many Chinese bishops appointed by the government and secretly recognized by the Pope, at the ordination ceremony they were not allowed to publicly announce this papal recognition. Even before the ceremony, within the restricted circle of priests of the diocese it was forbidden to read the recognitio by the Vatican.

After the agreement, with the consent of the parties, the Pope will nominate the bishops, the ordained bishops and the concelebrants will all be recognized by the Church, during the consecration ceremony the nomination that will be read must be personally signed by the Pontiff.

One can therefore see how the old wineskin of the "self-managed and independent Church" will be filled with new wine. However, this subtle change is a big change of direction. At least for the next two or three years, Chinese bishops, members of the Department of Religious Affairs and other departments will no longer have to worry and be embarrassed about any illegal or illicit ordinations.

In the past, the independence and self-management of the Chinese Church that deprived the Pope of his right of independence over the appointment and consecration of bishops was illicit [from the Church's point of view]. From today the representatives of the diocesan clergy, of the nuns and the representatives of the faithful, after the Pope's appointment, will organize the ordination.

Of course, in the past like the future, the participation of the Chinese government at all levels is very important.

The Patriotic Association: it is voluntary

The second point concerns the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics. According to its Constitutions at national, provincial and municipal levels, the Catholic Patriotic Association is "a voluntary popular organization of faithful patriotic Catholics".

"Popular organization" means that the Patriotic Association is not a Church.

"Voluntary organization" means that participation is voluntary and not imposed.

From this point of view, it is understandable that the Vatican will not comment on the participation of the Patriotic Association by the Clergy, considering that the Patriotic Association is not a church.

Some foreign media reported that the "underground bishops" must obtain recognition from the government and compulsorily participate in the Patriotic Association.

The problem now is that, since the statutes of the Patriotic Association establish the association is a group of people made up of Catholic religious and church members who freely associate, participating in it or not should be the voluntary choice of an individual. Therefore, participation in the Patriotic Association and the recognition of "underground clergy" by the government are not necessarily connected questions. From the standpoint of the universal Catholic Church and the Statutes of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, Patriotic Associations at all levels can be considered as organizations affiliated to the Catholic Church, able to serve the Church, but [without influence] on the affairs of the Church, internal to the Church's leadership and decision-making processes.

One issue that merits reflection is therefore the role of the Patriotic Association, which must respect the constraints imposed by its own statutes. In short, for the Vatican, the China-Vatican Agreement is a good start. Only mutual respect and the will to go forward together with the three parties involved, the Chinese government, the Vatican and the Catholic Church in China, will lead to find a common way to solve the other problems that are still unresolved: that of the “underground bishops"  ", the role of the Council of Bishops, the agreement on the number and territory of the dioceses, and so on.

* Member of the Institute for the Study of Religions, a branch of the National Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, and observer of the Catholic Church in China.