The renewal of the Sino-Vatican agreement: Today’s meagre fruits and those of the future
by Bernardo Cervellera

The Holy See and Beijing have announced the extension of the agreement for another two years. China’s apparent dissatisfaction at continued relations with Taiwan. The Vatican is content with the fruits: no illegitimate bishops. But there are no new bishops and the repression of the official and underground communities has continued and worsened. How to avoid "declarationist nominalism" and work for full religious freedom.

Rome (AsiaNews) - At 6 pm in Beijing, in correspondence with 12 noon in Rome, the announcement came that the provisional agreement between China and the Vatican was renewed for another two years, once again provisionally and once again secretly.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian confirmed in the routine press conference that the agreement would be extended for another two years and said the Vatican and Beijing will hold close dialogue and work to improve relations.

While for weeks the Vatican's desire to continue the agreement has been affirmed, in China silence reigned until today, with rare, generic phrases on the positive experience of the past two years, but without a word spent regarding the agreements renewal.

Even today’s few carefully chosen words, confirming the continuation of the agreement, reveal Beijing’s dissatisfaction. Several experts have confirmed that the fundamental reason why China has involved itself in this dialogue in the first place was to remove the Vatican from the countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The return of the rebel island to the motherland is one of the tasks that Xi Jinping has set himself for these years, after having subdued Macau and Hong Kong.

Yet, the Taiwan card will be the last one the Vatican will play, and not until full religious freedom is guaranteed to the Catholic Church. Hence Beijing's dissatisfaction and minimalist pronouncements. It is true that maintaining this relationship with the Holy See, which challenges the judgments of Mike Pompeo and the US administration, brings to China a large surge of sympathy from many poor and anti-American countries, which feel defended and represented by the Vatican diplomacy.

However, beyond mere geopolitical considerations, from the Holy See standpoint the agreement has enormous value: for the first time, in a certain ambiguous and "secret" way, the pontiff is recognized as party in cause in the appointment of bishops: Pope Francis has even claimed "the last word" on the appointments. Furthermore, this slender agreement is the beginning of a dream that all the popes have cherished: to have a relationship with this great country, after the expulsion by Mao Zedong of the nuncio Antonio Riberi in 1951. The nuncio had waited years to be received by the Great Helmsman, before being loaded onto a train and expelled to Hong Kong, then a British colony.

The fruits of these two years, however, are even more meagre than the report itself. The agreement was on the new appointments of bishops. In China, at least forty bishops would be needed since there are several vacant sees and others in which pastors are very old. In 2016 and early 2018, Wang Zuoan, from the ministry of religious affairs had promised an "avalanche" of episcopal ordinations without the mandate of the Holy See, increasing the confusion of the faithful and the split in the episcopate among the bishops loyal to Rome and those submitted to the Party.

An important fruit of the agreement is that of having stopped this possible "avalanche": from the day of the agreement onwards there have been no more illicit bishops. But it must also be said that there has been no new appointment or ordination. Although the official historiography cites two ordinations, that of Msgr. Antonio Yao Shun, from Jining (Inner Mongolia), and Msgr. Stefano Xu Hongwei, from Hanzhong (Shaanxi), the two appointments had both been decided many years earlier and cannot be attributed to the agreement. The same can be said for the settlements of some bishops who have gained official status.

One negative fruit of the agreement was the haste with which the Vatican lifted the excommunication of seven bishops, without them having made any gesture of contrition towards their communities, and the haste to install some of them in the diocese where the majority of the faithful belongs to the unofficial community. Although Pope Francis has asked all of them for a path of reconciliation, the difficulties have not diminished, also due to the intervention of the political authorities in the management of the communities.

The situation of Msgr. Guo Xijin is emblematic. As ordinary bishop of Mindong, at the Pope's request, he had agreed to be demoted to auxiliary bishop, to leave the post of ordinary to Msgr. Zhan Silu, from whom Pope Francis had lifted the excommunication. But the government did not even recognize him as an auxiliary bishop because he persistently refused to sign a document of adhesion to the "independent Church". Neither Msgr. Zhan, nor the Vatican have managed to find a way to safeguard the freedom of Msgr. Guo and 20 other priests of the diocese. Hence the decision of Msgr. Guo to resign from his public office.

The situation is even more negative if we look at the whole Church in China, where controls on official communities have increased (demolished crosses, destroyed churches, prohibition of religious education for young people, ...) and repression against unofficial ones (churches closed, priests chased away, destruction of cemeteries, isolation for bishops, ...).

Until now, the Vatican has always maintained that the agreement only concerns the appointment of bishops and that it could not address all problems. Moreover, it is claimed that its delegates have always drawn "the attention of the Chinese government" to these violations of religious freedom. In these two years of extension it is necessary that the agreement, the relations, the intensified dialogues between China and the Vatican bring more religious freedom, otherwise the agreement risks becoming, as Pope Francis says in his new encyclical on international politics, a form of “declarationist nominalism”, of beautiful words without facts.

Meanwhile, it is also important that the universal Church supports the Christian communities in China with prayer, solidarity, visits, help in evangelization. In China there is a great thirst for non-ideological values ​​and for God. And the proclamation and witness of new life in the Gospel can bear fruit even without perfect agreements or diplomatic relations.