09/24/2018, 12.33
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China-Vatican agreement: some positive steps, but without forgetting the martyrs

by Bernardo Cervellera

For the optimists the provisional agreement is "historic"; for the pessimists it is the beginning of the total sell out of the Church to the Party. The Pope is involved in naming bishops. But we know nothing of a right of veto. The lifting of excommunications is good, but the faithful expect a public request for forgiveness. China has not asked for a break with Taiwan as a prior condition. Praise for Lithuanian martyrs, amid silence on the Chinese ones.

Rome (AsiaNews) - Two days after what so many have called a "historic agreement" between China and the Holy See on the appointment of bishops, attempts to understand and evaluate its scope continue. The sober announcement of the Vatican Press Office - while all the journalists were busy elsewhere, on Pope Francis' journey to Lithuania - was greeted with a mix of optimism and dark pessimism.

Among the optimists, the adjective "historic" abounded, forgetting that the agreement has been labelled "provisional", subject to "periodic evaluations", and that the Holy See Press Office director spoke of the "beginning" of "a process" and not of its "end".

For the pessimists, it is "the beginning" of a total sell out of the Chinese Church to the State which, as is already the case, will do what it wants, that is,  transform it into a Party instrument. They also point out the silent suffering that Catholics official and unofficial have had to bear for almost 70 years.

We have already stated on many prior occasions that we at AsiaNews are neither optimists nor pessimists, but realists. What this realism does, is allow us to see the positive and the negative present in this fragile and "provisional" agreement.

The Pope and naming bishops

The agreement contains a novelty: in some way – which we are not a part to, because the text of the agreement has not been made public, nor will it ever be - the Holy See will be involved in the naming of bishops. This, at least on paper, means the end of the "independent" Church, greatly heralded in all these years, and the recognition that the bond with the Pope is also necessary for a Chinese bishop to exercise his ministry. According to the agreement it will no longer be possible to appoint and ordain a bishop without papal mandate, even if the government, or the patriotic association, or the council of bishops can propose their candidate. This is the optimistic part.

But there is also a pessimistic side: what will happen if the candidate proposed by China is rejected by the Pope? Until now there was talk of a temporary power of veto of the pontiff: the Pope would be able to give the reasons for his refusal within three months, but if the government found the papal motivations inconsistent, it would continue with the appointment and the ordination the chosen candidate. Not having the text of the agreement, we do not know if this clause has been maintained, if indeed the pontiff will have the last word on the appointments and ordinations, or if instead his authority is only formally recognized.

A canonist friend of mine is "certain" that the Pope will have a permanent power over the final word on candidates "because the Church cannot do otherwise". In any case, this is one of the points that - in the absence of the text on the agreement - we will have to verify in the coming months, with the possible appointments and ordinations that have been stalled for years.

The lifting of excommunications

Another positive element is the lifting of the excommunication from seven bishops, ordained without papal mandate between 2000 and 2012. It is a positive fact because at least in principle it will help Chinese Catholics towards greater unity. These excommunicated bishops were used by the Patriotic Association to divide the Church, with police forcing them to preside over ceremonies and episcopal ordinations. It must also be said that many of them have made a journey of repentance and have been asking for years to be reconciled with Rome. The lifting of excommunication is not part of the "package" of the agreement, but it is an internal gesture within the Church, although - perhaps with a somewhat naïve attempt at political strategy - the announcement of reconciliation was announced on the same day as the news of the agreement.

But among the Chinese faithful - part of that "holy faithful people of God" whom the Pope asks us to listen to - there is disillusionment and sadness because some of these reconciled bishops are known to have lovers and children and to be "collaborators". Many others wonder if the reconciled bishops will express a public request for forgiveness before the people they have scandalized with their "independent" action. In fact Card. Pietro Parolin, in his commentary on the agreement, called for "concrete actions that help overcome the misunderstandings of the past, even of the recent past".

A "pastoral" and "non-political" agreement

Another positive element of the agreement is its "pastoral" and "non-political" character. And indeed the agreement was signed without China demanding the breaking of diplomatic relations with Taiwan as a precondition. For decades and even in the last years of dialogue at the time of Pope Francis, China's refrain was that if the Vatican wanted to improve relations with Beijing, it would first have to interrupt relations with Taiwan and not meddle in China's internal affairs. With the "pastoral" agreement these two conditions are skipped: the Vatican is introduced into the bishops' appointments and there is no break with Taiwan, with much appreciation of the island's foreign ministry and the ambassador to the Holy See .

The unspoken persecution

However, there is another element that is overwhelmingly negative: neither in the news of the agreement nor in its explanations is there even the slightest reference to the persecution that Catholics and all Christians are sustaining in present times.

As our news agency has borne witness to many times on recent occasions, in the name of "sinicization", crosses are burned and destroyed, churches demolished, faithful arrested and young people under 18 years banned from worship and religious education in China.

In addition there are bishops and priests who have disappeared in police custody; bishops under house arrest; unofficial bishops considered as criminals; checks of all kinds in community life. Added to all of this is the persecutions to which other religious communities are subject (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, ...), which show the negative view that China has of religions, and its plan to assimilate or destroy them.

This makes the provisional agreement look like a strange result, a little unexpected and temporary, without a future, because it casts a shadow of suspicion on the interlocutor with whom the Holy See has decided to dialogue. Comments from China express satisfaction with the agreement, but also sadness because the Chinese do not trust their political authorities.


In this regard, months ago in an interview, Pope Francis said that "dialogue is a risk, but I prefer the uncertain risk to the defeat of not talking". It is therefore better to start a dialogue with an unreliable interlocutor, than to remain still. From this point of view, the agreement, even if temporary, is certainly a new page.

The Lithuanian and Chinese martyrs

The fact of silence on persecution remains. In all these years the Holy See has been silent about any persecutions: the killing of priests; the destroyed churches; the arrested bishops ... This gave many the impression that the dialogue was more "political" than "pastoral". Just yesterday Pope Francis, in Vilnius, recalling the victims of the Nazi and communist genocide, expressed a prayer in which he asks the Lord that we do not become "deaf to the cry of all those who today continue to raise their voices in heaven". And that's exactly what Chinese Catholics are asking for.  

I wondered why the Holy See wanted to communicate the signing of the agreement just as Pope Francis in Vilnius remembered the great witness of Lithuanian Catholics under Communism, their resistance and faith under torture, their being the seed of a freer and more welcoming society. Even then the Catholics discussed and were divided between denunciation and resistance and the Vatican Ostpolitik. If you look at the agreement only as a bad thing, then the memory of the Lithuanian martyrs could give rise to an interpretation of the "two weights and two measures" that diplomacy often implements and the celebration of the martyrs in Vilnius would be a mockery of the suffering of Chinese Christians.

But if in the agreement, although provisional, we can see even a glimmer of positivity, then the Lithuanian celebrations are a sign of hope: communism, "the delirium of omnipotence of those who claimed to control everything", did not win. And this also gives us hope for China.

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See also
The Chinese Church 'remains independent and loyal to the Party'
24/09/2018 12:42
Chinese Catholics: hope and sadness at China and the Holy See agreement
24/09/2018 16:47
Press Office announces a ‘Provisional Agreement’ between China and the Holy See, the beginning of a process, says Greg Burke
22/09/2018 13:09
Card Parolin on the importance of the agreement between China and the Holy See on the appointment of bishops
22/09/2018 15:06
Chinese Catholics mull agreement amid persecution
25/09/2018 12:35


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