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China–Vatican Deal? The Rumor Is Back

Earlier this year, China and the Holy See were widely reported to be on the verge of signing a controversial agreement. Rome would grant to Beijing most of the say in appointing bishops. I wrote about the rumored deal back in the spring. “Several sources familiar with a proposed deal between the Chinese government and the Holy See have said the landmark agreement is . . . an ‘imminent’ certainty that could come to fruition as early as this spring,” Elise Harris of the Catholic News Agency wrote on February 3. In March, on the Wednesday before Easter, Joseph Guo Jincai, who in 2011 was ordained a bishop without the approval of the Vatican, told Global Times, a state-run Chinese newspaper, that a deal between the two parties was in “the final stages.”

The next day Guo Xijin, an “underground” bishop not affiliated with the state-run Patriotic Catholic Association, was disappeared by government officials for the second time that week, feeding international doubt that the Vatican knew what it was getting into in its negotiations with the Chinese government. A few hours later Greg Burke, the director of the Vatican press office, issued a statement: There was “no ‘imminent’ signing of an agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China.” The week before, Beijing announced that the State Administration for Religious Affairs was being dissolved and that a unit of the Communist Party would assume its oversight duties, in a move signaling that official control over religious practice was tightening. In January, in Shanxi Province, the government demolished Golden Lampstand, a Protestant megachurch.

And so on. Examples of recent developments that might have led the Vatican to step back from negotiations with the Chinese government are too numerous to list here. By Easter, disturbing accounts of increased religious persecution and suppression in China had piled up and come under increasing media scrutiny, and the drumbeat of news stories in which an agreement between the Vatican and Beijing was described as a fait accompli, the formal announcement of which we could expect any day now, faded out. According to some news sources, the deal fell apart primarily because some Chinese bishops wouldn’t agree to it.

Yesterday the rumor returned in the form of a couple of pieces in the Wall Street Journal. In a news story based on information from two anonymous sources, Francis X. Rocca and Eva Dou report what we read last spring: The deal is done, and the formal announcement of it is imminent. They say it’s set for later this month. Then on the Journal’s editorial page, we read that “a far-reaching deal between Rome and the Vatican” [or rather “between Beijng and the Vatican,” I assume] was “announced” yesterday, but it wasn’t. A rumor of it was reported. It may turn out to be true this time, but so far the Journal has provided no information that would lead us to put more confidence in this version of the story than in the countless versions that were circulating six months ago. According to UCANews (Union of Catholic Asian News), on August 19 the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Hong Kong ran an editorial that indicated that an agreement would be signed in October. That’s the only news source I find that doesn’t simply rehash what was reported yesterday in the Journal.

The New York Times and the Washington Post, whose coverage of religion is more serious (though it could be more ample) than a conservative skeptic of mainstream media might assume, have not acknowledged the revival of the rumor. Neither, as far as I can tell, have major English-language Catholic publications or La Croix, the French Catholic newspaper, or the Italian dailies La Stampa or La Corriere della Sera (although some of those outlets may have done so by the time you read this). Earlier today La Repubblica ran a short piece based on the Wall Street Journal article.

At AsiaNews.it, Father Bernardo Cervellera points out that Italian and Vatican journalists have been announcing the imminence of a Rome–Beijing agreement not just for the past six months but “for at least three years now, . . . always quoting anonymous people, but ‘with inside knowledge of the Vatican–Chinese dossier.’” I’ve spoken with informed, thoughtful Catholics who have worked in China, are committed to supporting and spreading the faith there, and feel strongly that Rome should sign a deal with Beijing even it it means making painful concessions. Some of them do acknowledge the Chinese Catholics who think that the Vatican is trying to sell them out.

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