The Vatican announced today that the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China have signed a “provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops,” allowing the faithful to “have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.”  

In a short communique (see full text below), the Vatican said the agreement is the “fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement” that follows a “long process of careful negotiation.”

In an accompanying briefing note, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had decided as part of the agreement to “readmit to full ecclesial communion” eight bishops (one of whom is deceased) who had been excommunicated because they had been appointed by the official, state-backed Church without papal permission. 

The statement added that by lifting these excommunications the Pope “hopes that, with these decisions, a new process may begin that will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics.”

In its communique, the Vatican gave few details except to say the agreement, which concerns a matter of “great importance for the life of the Church” also “foresees the possibility of periodic reviews of its application.”

It added that the “shared hope” is that the agreement may “favor a fruitful and forward-looking process of institutional dialogue and may contribute positively to the life of the Catholic Church in China, to the common good of the Chinese people and to peace in the world.”

In a separate statement (see below), Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, said the agreement was of “great importance, especially for the life of the Church in China” and for dialogue between the Holy See and Chinese authorities. 

He said the objective of the Holy See was a “pastoral one” and that the Holy See’s goals are to create “greater freedom, autonomy and organization” so the Church can dedicate itself to the mission of proclaiming the Gospel as well as “contribute to the well- being and to the spiritual and material prosperity and harmony of the country, of every person and of the world as a whole.” 

“For the first time all the Bishops in China are in communion with the Bishop of Rome, with the Successor of Peter,” Cardinal Parolin said, adding that the Holy See hopes the agreement “will be an instrument just for these objectives, for these aims, with the cooperation of all.” 

He also said the Pope hopes the agreement will help “overcome past misunderstandings, past tensions, even the recent ones.” 

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said today’s agreement “is not the end of a process” but “the beginning.” The talks have been “about dialogue, patient listening on both sides even when people come from very different standpoints,” Burke said. 

“The objective of the accord is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities,” he added.

In the past, the state-run church in China had appointed bishops without Rome's permission, leading to their excommunication. In the future, new bishops are expected to be proposed by local members of the Church, together with the government and the Chinese bishops conference.

The Pope had been expected to have veto power over bishops nominated by Chinese authorities although, along with other details, this was not mentioned in today's announcements.

The prospect of an agreement had already divided communities of Catholics across China, with some fearing it would result in further suppression by Beijing, but others favoring rapprochement and a possible reestablishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Holy See after a break of over half a century.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, told Reuters this week that he believed the consequences of the agreement would be “tragic and long lasting, not only for the Church in China but for the whole Church because it damages the credibility.” 

The Vatican, he said, was giving “the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal.”

The Holy See has already taken highly contentious steps along the path of the agreement: In December, it made the decision to order 88-year-old Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou of the underground Church to step aside for a state-backed bishop to succeed him and be reconciled with the Holy See and to give Bishop Zhuang the title “emeritus.”

At the same time, a government-appointed bishop, Zhan Silu, was allowed to take the place of a Vatican-recognized bishop, Guo Xijin of Mindong. Bishop Guo was made an auxiliary and granted official recognition in return.

Despite the opposition, Cardinal Parolin, who had been spearheading the talks, told reporters this week the Holy See is “convinced that this is a step forward” and that it was “not so naive as to think that from now on everything is going to go well, but it seems to us that this is the right direction.”

See this Register article from April for background on today's agreement. 

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Communiqué concerning the signing of a Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China on the appointment of Bishops

Today, 22nd September 2018, within the framework of the contacts between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China that have been underway for some time in order to discuss Church matters of common interest and to promote further understanding, a meeting was held in Beijing between Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, Undersecretary for the Holy See’s Relations with States, and H.E. Mr. Wang Chao, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, respectively heads of the Vatican and Chinese delegations.

During that meeting, the two representatives signed a Provisional Agreement on the appointment of Bishops.

The above-mentioned Provisional Agreement, which is the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement, has been agreed following a long process of careful negotiation and foresees the possibility of periodic reviews of its application. It concerns the nomination of Bishops, a question of great importance for the life of the Church, and creates the conditions for greater collaboration at the bilateral level.

The shared hope is that this agreement may favour a fruitful and forward-looking process of institutional dialogue and may contribute positively to the life of the Catholic Church in China, to the common good of the Chinese people and to peace in the world.

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Briefing Note about the Catholic Church in China

With a view to sustaining the proclamation of the Gospel in China, the Holy Father Pope Francis has decided to readmit to full ecclesial communion the remaining “official” Bishops, ordained without Pontifical Mandate: H.E. Mgr Joseph Guo Jincai, H.E. Mgr Joseph Huang Bingzhang, H.E. Mgr Paul Lei Shiyin, H.E. Mgr Joseph Liu Xinhong, H.E. Mgr Joseph Ma Yinglin, H.E. Mgr Joseph Yue Fusheng, H.E. Mgr Vincent Zhan Silu and H.E. Mgr Anthony Tu Shihua, OFM (who, before his death on 4thJanuary 2017, had expressed the desire to be reconciled with the Apostolic See).

Pope Francis hopes that, with these decisions, a new process may begin that will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics.

The Catholic Community in China is called to live a more fraternal collaboration, in order to promote with renewed commitment the proclamation of the Gospel. In fact, the Church exists to give witness to Jesus Christ and to the forgiving and salvific love of the Father.

22nd September 2018.

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Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s statement on the signing of the Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China concerning the nomination of Bishops 

The signing of a Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China concerning the appointment of Bishops is of great importance, especially for the life of the Church in China, for the dialogue between the Holy See and the Authorities of that country and also for the promotion of a horizon of peace in this present times in which we experience so many tensions at international level. 

The objective of the Holy See is a pastoral one: the Holy See intends just to create the condition, or to help to create the condition, of a greater freedom, autonomy and organization, in order that the Catholic Church can dedicate itself to the mission of announcing the Gospel and also to contribute to the well- being and to the spiritual and material prosperity and harmony of the country, of every person and of the world as a whole. 

And today, for the first time all the Bishops in China are in communion with the Bishop of Rome, with the Successor of Peter. And Pope Francis, like his immediate Predecessors, looks with particular care to the Chinese People. What is required now is unity, is trust and a new impetus; to have good Pastors, recognized by the Successor of Peter – by the Pope – and by the legitimate civil Authorities. And we believe – we hope, we hope – that the Agreement will be an instrument just for these objectives, for these aims, with the cooperation of all. 

To the Catholic Community in China – the Bishops, priests, religious and faithful – the Pope entrusts, above all, the commitment to make concrete fraternal gestures of reconciliation among themselves, and so to overcome past misunderstandings, past tensions, even the recent ones. In this way they can really contribute, and they will be able to perform the duty of the Church which is the announcement of the Gospel and, at the same time, to contribute to the growth, the spiritual and material growth, of their country and to peace and reconciliation in the world. 

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Comment of Greg Burke, Director of the Holy See Press Office:

“This is not the end of a process. It's the beginning. This has been about dialogue, patient listening on both sides even when people come from very different standpoints. The objective of the accord is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities."

This article has been updated.