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The Agreement between the Holy See and China: Whence and whither?

Federico Lombardi, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Dec 27th 2019

Just over a year ago, on September 22, 2018, an Agreement was signed between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Despite its temporary nature, its importance is such that it has attracted much comment, and it has already become the focus of in-depth study. One recent publication edited by two sinologists at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Agostino Giovagnoli and Elisa Giunipero, offers useful guidance to understand not only the history and nature of the agreement, but also the conditions for it to produce its fruits for the life for the Catholic Church in the PRC.[1]

The volume opens with an illuminating preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin on the new “Roman Approach” to the Chinese question. There is also a contribution from Andrea Riccardi who insists on the decisive role of Pope Francis in the resumption of relations between the Holy See and China after several turbulent decades, to the point of his leading them firmly to this first historic result.

The history of Sino-Vatican relations

The longest paper is “The Holy See and China from 1978 to 2018” by Giovagnoli, who analyzes relations from the beginning of the pontificate of Saint John Paul II to the present day. This is a highly detailed study on the subject and on this period. The author recalls the different phases of the dialogue and its crises (the interruptions in 1981, 2000 and 2010) for which he seeks to identify causes and responsibilities on both sides.

Giovagnoli gives an interesting reading of China-related events during the pontificate of Benedict XVI: the institution of the “Commission for the Catholic Church in China”; Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong’s nomination as cardinal, and the role he assumed in the Commission and in the stiffening of its stance; Pope Benedict’s “Letter to the Catholics of China”[2] plus a discussion of its interpretation. Unfortunately, the author concludes, “the break that occurred between 2009 and 2010 took a heavier toll than the previous breaks.”

Turning to Pope Francis, Giovagnoli points out the novelty of his approach compared to those in earlier negotiations. Previously the approach had been characterized by a quest for an “exchange of advantage” between the two sides. Now, Giovagnoli sees the main content to be in the “commitment to collaboration.” This “means that both sides have renounced proceeding independently: they have not reduced their respective ‘sovereignties’: ‘spiritual’ in the case of the Holy See and ‘temporal’ in the case of the Chinese government. But they have renounced the exercise of them separately” (p. 69).

Giovagnoli concludes with this overall evaluation: “The act signed together opened the way to the full manifestation of the universality of the Catholic Church that is inclusive also of Chinese Catholicism and to the definitive insertion of the Chinese Church into Catholic universality … Other indirect effects of the agreement are the objective reshaping of the role of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the need to reinterpret the affirmation of the ‘independence’ of the Chinese Catholic Church after the role of the pope in the nomination of future bishops has been officially recognized” (pp. 69 ff).

The canonical point of view

Canon lawyer Bruno Fabio Pighin considers the character of the agreement as a “bilateral” treaty between two subjects of international law: the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See, which is the international legal subject for the entire Catholic Church. They are in an “equal” position, respecting their independent and sovereign laws. However, the agreement has a “special nature, because it concerns persons dependent on both signatories,” in as much as people are at the same time Chinese citizens and among the faithful of the Catholic Church.

Specifying its nature, Pighin points out that it is not an “asymmetrical” agreement between a state and a religious confession present within it, but neither is it a concordat, “which would have provided for the complete and definitive treatment of entire matters of national interest and, above all, of the maximum solemnity” (p. 73). Instead, it is a partial agreement (limited to the appointment of bishops) and a temporary agreement, the temporariness of which can be well understood as a point of departure rather than arrival, keeping in mind that other important matters remain open, such as the administrative reorganization of the dioceses and the establishment of a legitimate Episcopal Conference.

Finally, Pighin does not fail to outline the open issue of the “clandestine” bishops who were legitimately ordained as Catholic bishops but not recognized by civil authority, proposing some possible solutions through, for example, the reorganization of dioceses.

Another canonist, Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, discusses three concrete questions: the autonomy of the local episcopate, the territorial organization of the Church in the diocese, the appointment of bishops. In particular, we note his considerations on the reasons why today the ecclesiastical jurisdictions recognized by civil authority do not correspond to those recognized by the Church (p. 138). The reasons that led Chinese authorities to modify the existing jurisdictions in 1946 are different.

The first is the reordering of the administrative and civil organization of the country. The author observes: “Irrespective of the fact that these changes were made without the intervention of the Holy See, from a substantive point of view there would be no major objections raised by the Church in such a situation. In fact, the criterion of accommodating as much as possible the territorial limits of the ecclesiastical jurisdictions to those of the civil administration of the country is one of the parameters provided by the Second Vatican Council for the reorganization of dioceses throughout the world. This allows effective contact with the civil authorities while removing the complications for the local Church of having to submit to different norms, procedures and criteria” (pp. 182 ff).

Another reason was of an “ecclesiastical nature,” that is, the unification of jurisdictions in which the number of priests has reduced. In any case, in proceeding to the reorganization by common agreement with the civil authorities and to facilitate a “passage” without trauma to new diocesan communities, Bishop Arrieta also suggests the temporary use of “personal jurisdictions.”

‘Sinicization’ and the Chinese point of view

In her contribution dedicated to “Sinicization and Religious Politics in Xi Jinping’s China,” Elisa Giunipero addresses the apparent contradiction between the signing of the new agreement and the current strengthening of governmental control over religions in China. Today, from a clearly “political” perspective, the Chinese leadership asks religious communities in China to “adapt to the political situation led by the CCP, respect the laws, become part of the socialist society, participate in the realization of the Chinese dream” (p. 90). It is also clear that there is a willingness to regulate all religious activities in great detail.

Why then an agreement with the Holy See now? The author observes that “today the Catholic Church in China, unlike other religious communities, does not present problems linked to ethnic claims or appear to be at risk of terrorist infiltration” (p. 96), and the Catholic communities, composed and led by Chinese citizens, pursue, even with various activities, the commitment to build a more just and supportive society.

In this context, the signing of the agreement is not in conflict with “political sinicization” because it contributes to the same goal of social stability. “The aim is to prevent the nomination of new clandestine bishops, with all its consequences: divisions within Chinese society and potential opposition to the regime… The agreement also aims to overcome the tensions linked to the ordination of illegitimate bishops, that is those recognized only by Beijing, because they create dissent in Catholic communities. While addressing, moreover, the growing problem of the presence in China of new Christian Churches and new religions that more successfully elude government control, the authorities consider particularly opportune the ‘pacification’ of the Catholic communities scattered throughout the country” (p. 97).

At the same time, obviously, we should not overlook that Pope Francis was able to welcome the strong desire for the projection of China internationally with a more cordial attitude, less marked by distrust and fear than that of most Western leaders.

Another comment on the agreement comes from the Chinese voice of Ren Yanli. A member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, this recognized Chinese scholar of the Second Vatican Council and Sino-Vatican relations joins in with his testimony. Qualifying the agreement as being one of “historic importance,” he notes that “for the first time the Beijing government has recognized the pope’s authority over Catholics in China … This is a very important novelty, because for many years the independence of the Chinese Catholic Church and the difference between the political and religious implications of that ‘independence’ have been discussed” (p. 153).

It is worth noting the author’s appreciation of the last phase of the negotiations: “The negotiations that began in 2014 were characterized by novelties unknown in all of the previous history: they are official negotiations, they took place continuously, through frequent meetings and quite regular reciprocal visits, carried out alternately in Beijing or Rome with fairly fixed members. These negotiations were serious, significant, surprising and have been appreciated and encouraged by all those who have tried to make their own contribution to improving relations between China and the Holy See” (ibid.)

Ren Yanli knows the history well and makes observations that lead to reflection. For example, he points out that when there was a wave of “returns” to the ecclesial communion of the “official” Chinese bishops, “the Chinese authorities did nothing to counter it. They assisted, in short, without intervening. In turn, the Holy See has so far never recognized either the Episcopal Conference of the “official Church,” founded in 1980, nor that of the “underground Church,” founded in 1989. In short, the Holy See has also shown great prudence so as not to aggravate existing tensions and to leave the way open for new developments” (p. 155). Chinese and Roman wisdom!

Patriotic Association and the Path of Reconciliation

Two studies are dedicated to the Patriotic Catholic Association and its role in the affairs of Sino-Vatican relations. In her study “The Founding of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics in 1957” Wang Meixiu reports extensively the most important official intervention of the Founding Assembly, that is the speech of the then Secretary General of the Council of State, Xi Zhongxun (father of the current President Xi Jinping), which lays the foundations of Chinese communist policy toward the Catholic Church. The scholar also reports significant interventions by Catholic representatives on the relations between the Chinese Church and the Holy See.

Rachel Zhu Xiaohong looks at “Bishop Jin Luxian and the Patriotic Catholic Association of Shanghai.” The author was a collaborator of the Jesuit bishop (1916-2013), one of the most important figures of the contemporary Chinese Church. After many years of imprisonment, Jin Luxian became the “official” bishop of Shanghai in 1988, and in 2004 he was recognized by the Holy See.

The development of the Church of Shanghai under his leadership was remarkable, but the most interesting point of the article is in highlighting his line on the Patriotic Association in the diocese: “Since he had understood that there was no way of eradicating this political organization from the Catholic Church, Bishop Jin encouraged the faithful of the diocese of Shanghai to join it and no longer consider it as a body foreign to the Church” (pp. 131 ff).

His 1990 speech to the members of the Association was famous: “You must serve both the Church and your country! If you want to serve only your country and not the Church, you better leave it and join a non-ecclesial patriotic organization” (p. 125).

Certainly, not all Chinese bishops had the authority and experience that allowed Bishop Jin that wise pragmatism with which he brought the local Patriotic Association to the service of the diocese. But reconsidering the value of that experience can also help to find ways forward, combining loyalty to the nation and fidelity to the Church.

A primary ecclesial purpose of the agreement is union in the Chinese Catholic community. It is interesting that the contribution most directly on this topic – “The Solution to the Conflict between the ‘Open’ and ‘Underground’ Catholic Communities in China” – was written not by a Catholic, but by a pastor from Hong Kong, the Rev. Chan Kim-kwong, the animator of a committee that since 2010 has organized conferences on Christianity and China with the participation of academics, clergymen and government officials. He considers the agreement “one of the most important events of the beginning of the century, at both ecclesiastical and geopolitical levels” (p. 212). But for it to bear the hoped-for fruit, it is necessary that the conflict existing in the Chinese Catholic Church be overcome. To this end, he proposes the adoption of a “dispute settlement method,” which he considers suitable for the tensions between the “underground” and the “open” communities.

This author’s analysis helps us to understand the importance not only of the objective data of the problems but also of the attitudes of the parties involved, of the dynamics of conflicts and difficulties in dialogue, and of the weight of negative and hostile reciprocal representations that can lead to rigid opposition. Chan Kim-kwong wonders what a “mediator” or “mediation group” might be, one that is “impartial, trusted by both parties and having no personal conflicts of interest in the process” (p. 224).

The Conferences promoted by Chan can also make a contribution in this direction. It is appreciated that people outside the Catholic Church want to collaborate in the solution of a serious problem within the Church, and that they also consider the agreement “a first milestone” for this commitment, seen as a duty for the common good.

Finally, those who experience great difficulty in conceiving or accepting an agreement on episcopal appointments in which procedures agreed with the civil authorities for the choice of candidates precede the final choice by the pope will profitably read the article by the historian Roberto Regoli, “Papacy, State, National Churches and Episcopal Appointments in Modern Europe.” “In the long term,” this author concludes, “we must recognize a plurality of possible forms not only of territorial Churches, but also of modalities of the procedures of the episcopal nominations, which are a crucial point for the constitution of the national Churches” (p. 175).

It is true that the general tendency of recent centuries goes in the direction of a reduction in the weight of the intervention of the civil authorities, for which the Chinese case appears to be an exception. Yet the overall lesson of history is that even in the field of episcopal appointments “to contingent situations only contingent responses can be given” (ibid.), responding in the most appropriate way to historical circumstances.

* * *

At the end of this roundup of in-depth studies on the agreement, allow me to offer a brief concluding reflection. The perspective of the curators is obviously positive or favorable to the agreement. At the same time it is objective because it is aware of the limits and questions left open. We fully agree.

The volume does not give wide exposure to opposing points of view, which are not lacking. However, given that they already have space elsewhere to express themselves, it is right to present this series of solid and well-founded arguments to illuminate the path undertaken by the Holy See.  The attitude is of a trusting dialogue both in the external context and in that within the Chinese Catholic Church, always keeping clear the concern for the common good and for the specific nature and mission of the Church in the proclamation of the Gospel.[3]

[1] A. Giovagnoli – E. Giunipero (eds), L’Accordo tra Santa Sede e Cina. I cattolici cinesi tra passato e futuro, Vatican City, Urbaniana University Press, 2019.


[3] The volume contains additional articles. G. Valente looks at Chinese episcopal ordinations from the 1980s to the present day. Other contributions concern the most pressing problems of the Chinese Catholic communities today. These include J.B. Zhang Shijiang, “From Dialogue to Reconciliation”; Liu Guopeng, “Indigenization of the Catholic Church in China”; V. Martano, “Catholics in China and Their Future.” G. La Bella writes about “Inculturation: the Latin American Experience and Pope Francis.”

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