The provisional agreement signed for the first time in 2018 between China and the Holy See, and concerning the appointment of bishops, has just been renewed for two additional years after the first renewal of 2020. The news comes a few days before the announced resumption of the trial of Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, a long-time opponent of the Chinese regime.
The news began to filter out on October 19, 2022 in the columns of Corriere della Sera, the largest Italian daily: the Sino-Vatican agreement has been renewed until October 22, 2024.
The agreement is the result or the fruit of the negotiations which were held between the end of August and the beginning of September in the north of China, in Tianjin, between the Roman diplomats and their Chinese counterparts.
There, the Pope's envoys were able to meet Msgr. Melchiorre Shi Hongzhen, a bishop of the underground Church, not recognized by Beijing, aged 92 today: an additional sign, according to Corriere della Sera, that the borders between the Official Church and the underground Church have tended blur for several years.
In essence, the text of the agreement – the exact terms of which remain confidential to this day, which is hardly reassuring – would be limited to the “ecclesial and religious” plan. We know that it provides that, with regards to the appointment of bishops, Rome would propose a candidate that Beijing would reserve the right to confirm.
Roman diplomacy wants to believe in the beneficial effects of its policy and recalls that since the four years of the agreement’s entry into force there have been no more episcopal consecrations celebrated in China without a certain consent of the Sovereign Pontiff.
Thus, six bishops chosen by Pope Francis have received the approval of the Chinese authorities. Even better, six other bishops from the so-called “underground” Church have also been recognized by Beijing: a first since the formal rupture of diplomatic relations with the Holy See on September 5, 1951.
Meager results considering the 98 dioceses in the country - of which 36 remain vacant to this day - but which allow Gianni Valente, director of the news agency Fides, to recall that from now on “All Catholic bishops stationed in China are 'officially in full communion'” with the Successor of Peter, ending a nearly 70-year-old schism.
The announcement of the renewal of the agreement comes a few days before the resumption of the trial of Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, in Hong Kong, on October 26.
Several critics of the current pontificate regret that the fate of this early opponent of the communist regime has been sacrificed on the altar of the renewal of an agreement which - beyond timid advances - still leaves many uncertainties for the Catholic Church in China.
Indeed, the provisional agreement did not put an end to the policy of cutting down church crosses, nor to the prohibition of minors from attending their churches. Not to mention the professions of Chinese-style socialism that Catholic ministers are required to sign in the name of the sinicization of religions.
Above all, the “official” bishops are still members of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, which remains a schismatic church. These bishops take their orders first from Beijing, and then transmit these orders to the Catholic faithful without worrying about what Rome thinks.
So, this agreement is only beneficial for those who are satisfied with a situation in which the “patriotic” bishops are legitimized and can do what the authorities tell them to do.