The Provisional Rome-Beijing Agreement Ready to be Put into Action

March 30, 2019
Cardinal Pietro Parolin

On February 28, 2019, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, said that it is now important to put the provisional agreement on the nomination of bishops in China into action. “It is a matter of the Church’s ability to fulfill its mission in protecting the religious freedom of believers and contributing effectively to the spiritual and material development of the country,” he stated.

The provisional agreement with the Chinese government on the nomination of bishops required lengthy preparation, Cardinal Parolin told the Italian edition of Vatican News. This agreement is in reality sui generis [in a class of its own], since it was “achieved by two parties that do not yet have mutual recognition.”

“We finally reached it, and we hope that it will really bring forth fruit for the good of the Church and the country.”

The text of this provisional agreement, signed by China and the Vatican on September 22, 2018, has not yet been made public.

On February 2, 2019, the Holy See announced Pope Francis’ decision to entrust a diocesan pastoral mission to each “illicit” Chinese bishop now in communion with Rome. The thorny question of the recognition of “unofficial” clergy remains, clergy that had stayed faithful to Rome and refused to submit to Beijing, by the Chinese government, a question that the Holy See announced it would pursue on a path of dialogue, with an “attitude of mutual understanding and patience.”

On February 28, Cardinal Parolin addressed a conference on “agreements between the Holy See and individual states” at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He recalled numerous examples of agreements concluded in the past between the Holy See and “non-Christian” states where Catholics were in minority—notably with Tunisia (1964), Morocco (1983), Israel (1993) and even more recently, the Palestinian Authority (2015). With regard to western nations known as “Catholic,” he stated, “we have always tried to guarantee the independence of the Church relative to governments’ attempts at interference in its internal affairs and in the nomination of bishops.”

From March 20 to 23, Chinese president Xi Jinping will be in Italy. In China, many voices are rumouring a possible meeting with Pope Francis, Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, head of Asia News, wrote on March 11, 2019. In fact, he said: 

...the Vatican-Beijing agreement and the lifting of the excommunication of seven illicit bishops seem to support the idea that the only way to live out the Faith in China is from now on that of the official Church, and that the clandestine community must disappear.

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, stated in an interview with the Osservatore Romano on February 3, 2019: “I hope that I will no longer have to hear or read anything about local situations in which the agreement is instrumentalized to force people to do something that Chinese law itself does not oblige, such as joining the Patriotic Association.” Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening, Fr. Cervellera said. “Even some bishops—among them those whose excommunication was lifted by Pope Francis—proclaim that it is time to leave the underground Church and join the Patriotic Association. And if underground Catholics do not become official, it is because they have “personal reasons,” according to Bishop Vincenzo Zhan Silu, vice-president of the Patriotic Association who has become bishop of Mindong instead of the ordinary incumbent, Bishop Guo Xijin, whose place he took.

When President Xi Jinping is in Italy, “it will perhaps be important to elucidate the future of the underground Church and the Patriotic Association,” Fr. Cevellera concluded.