Beijing has quietly indicated that it will soon abrogate its “breakthrough” 2018 agreement with the Vatican, which was meant to settle a decades-long dispute over the appointment of bishops in China.
In November, shortly after exchanging diplomatic notes verbales with Rome to renew the deal for another two years, China thoroughly negated it in a dry public posting by the state bureaucracy. Order No. 15, on new administrative rules for religious affairs, includes an article on establishing a process for the selection of Catholic bishops in China after May 1. The document makes no provision for any papal role in the process, not even a papal right to approve or veto episcopal appointments in China, which was supposed to be the single substantive concession to the Vatican in the agreement. It’s as if the deal never happened.
Reneging on a deal with Pope Francis may not be as consequential as overturning the “one country, two systems” agreement that was supposed to guarantee Hong Kong’s autonomy after the city’s return from the United Kingdom to China, but it does reveal the peril of international partnerships with Beijing.
In October, when the two-year renewal of the deal was announced, the Vatican reported that the “results achieved” until then under the agreement were the appointments of two new bishops who had papal approval. Its press statement praised the appointments as “a good start.” “Thanks to the implementation of the Agreement, there will be no illegitimate ordinations,” the statement said, before expressing joy that the Chinese Church would experience “unity” once again. Order No. 15 now casts serious doubt on these claims.
So far, the Vatican has not commented on China’s stunning betrayal. On February 11, the magazine Bitter Winter translated the document into English, enabling the Catholic News Agency to summarize the process they establish: “China’s state-run Catholic Church and bishops’ conference will select, approve, and ordain episcopal candidates — with no mention of the Vatican’s involvement in the process.”
Significantly, the new rules require the clergy to “adhere to the principle of independent and self-administered religion in China.” This language tracks with a longstanding clause in the membership pledge of the so-called Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church (CPCC), which bishops and priests are required to sign to be licensed for ministry. It means, in practical terms, that Chinese clergy must be actually independent of the Vatican and, therefore, must be apostates. In 2019, the Vatican suggested guidelines, outside the agreement’s framework, for rejecting the clause. Father Huang Jintong, a priest in Fujian, was held by police and tortured for four days for following the Vatican guidance.
The new rules stipulate that CPCC-aligned clergy actively support the ruling Communist Party. Article 3 requires them to “support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party” and “the socialist system,” as well as to “practice the core values of socialism.” The rules also require clergy to promote “social harmony,” by which Beijing means conformity of thought. In other words, the rules aim to turn churches into another arm of the authoritarian Chinese regime.
Enforcement is ensured by a rule directing that those entering churches “be regulated through strict gatekeeping, verification of identity, and registration.” Registration is to be tracked in a new government database that lists the names of legal clergy and regulates their behavior through a system of “rewards” and “punishments.”
Catholicism has deep historical roots in China. Introduced to the country by the 16th-century Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, it is one of five state-recognized religions, and China’s estimated 12 million Catholics are not subject to charges of separatism or terrorism, as several other Chinese religious minorities are. Instead, the CCP views Catholicism warily, as a belief system imported from the West, and aims either to coopt the religion through the party-controlled Patriotic Church or to eradicate it completely.
The appointment of bishops, the Vatican explained in its statement on the 2018 agreement’s renewal, is “essential to guarantee the ordinary life of the Church in China.” While both parties agreed to keep the text confidential, the Vatican has been clear about the importance of a papal role in this process.
As the Catholic News Service reported, “Pope Francis told reporters in September 2018 that the agreement envisions ‘a dialogue about potential candidates. The matter is carried out through dialogue. But the appointment is made by Rome; the appointment is by the pope. This is clear.’” The Vatican disclosed that fundamental Church teaching on “the particular role of the Supreme Pontiff within the Episcopal College and in the appointment of bishops itself, inspired the negotiations” and “was a point of reference in the drafting of the text of the agreement.” It helps to ensure that all Catholic congregations in China will be unified behind the pope.
With Pope Francis’s approval, Vatican diplomats pursued a bilateral agreement, taking advantage of the Holy See’s status as a sovereign state. The Vatican accepted that the agreement would “exclusively concern” episcopal appointments. It would refrain from pressing Beijing on the status of the “underground,” non-CPCC Catholic Church, the ban against religion for youth, the state’s destruction of numerous churches and Marian shrines, its efforts to reinterpret the Bible, and a host of other human-rights crises. It could live with Communist administrative control of its churches, as it did in Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War. And, as a precondition of the agreement, Pope Francis was willing to lift the prior excommunications of seven government-named bishops. The agreement was signed in September 2018, on a provisional basis for two years. As recently as October 2020, the Vatican expressed satisfaction about its progress and optimistically characterized it as “above all the point of departure for broader and more far-sighted agreements.”
China was willing to enter into the agreement for one simple reason: It wanted Vatican help in eliminating the underground Catholic Church and had the leverage to secure that concession. The CCP-controlled Patriotic Church was to be the institution wherein Chinese Catholic unification would take place, with the pope’s blessing. After the agreement, Chinese authorities rounded up underground Catholic clergy, warning that they would defy the pope if they continued baptizing, ordaining new clergy, and praying in unregistered churches. The Chinese Catholic underground could withstand being officially labeled illegal or counterrevolutionary; it survived fierce persecution as an enemy of the state during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. But it couldn’t withstand running afoul of the pope. The conscientious objectors among the underground clergy felt compelled to end their active ministries and return to their families, as Bishop Vincent Guo of Mindong did this past year.
Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong warned that the 2018 deal would “kill” the Catholic underground in mainland China, and his warning now seems to have been borne out. The underground has been sufficiently weakened that Beijing, calculating that the agreement has served its purpose, is moving to repudiate its sole point of substance. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, stripped of a papal role in episcopal appointments in China and with a diminished and demoralized underground, is left much more poorly positioned to survive the Xi era intact.
Partnering with Xi’s China is a rigged game, because the CCP doesn’t play by fair rules. It honors bilateral agreements to the extent that they serve its ends; it has no qualms about breaking its end of an agreement after the other party has fulfilled theirs. There is, sadly, little appetite among other nations for holding Xi’s regime to account for such lawlessness. But as a Catholic and a world leader, President Biden should take a close interest in what is happening to the Church in China, and he should use his power to penalize the CCP for its perfidy and to keep it in focus before committing the U.S. in any future partnerships with Beijing.