Many Unknowns Remain After Vatican-China Accord

An Interview With Father Bernardo Cervellera of Asia News

Father Bernardo Cervellera says the new Vatican-China agreement on appointing bishops lacks ‘clearer gesture of unity with the underground Catholics.’
Father Bernardo Cervellera says the new Vatican-China agreement on appointing bishops lacks ‘clearer gesture of unity with the underground Catholics.’ (photo: EWTN video)

Father Bernardo Cervellera, a priest of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, is the longtime editor of Asia News, the pontifical institute’s official press agency that covers the Church from Russia to Southeast Asia.

Father Cervellera, also the editor of Fides news agency, is widely regarded as a leading authority on the Church in Asia, and especially China, where the Catholic faithful and their bishops have been divided into two communities for more than 60 years — the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association loyal to the atheistic Chinese communist government and the “underground,” unrecognized Church, which has faced long-standing persecution for loyalty to the Pope.

Register senior editor Matthew Bunson interviewed Father Cervellera by email last month on the heels of the Vatican’s announcement of an unprecedented accord with the People’s Republic China over the appointment of bishops, essentially agreeing to allow the communist-atheistic nation a role in selecting bishops, who are in turn approved by the Pope. Father Cervellera’s answers have been translated from the original Italian by Peter Waymel.


On the flight back to Rome from the Baltics, Pope Francis told reporters that the Vatican’s agreement with the People’s Republic of China is his full responsibility. Is there concern that this may prove to be a catastrophic deal for Chinese Catholics?

“Catastrophic” is a bit much. At most, it leaves the life of the Church as it has been until now: under the strict control of the Patriotic Association and the [Communist] Party; as regards the official Church, perhaps even more controlled — and social exclusion for the underground Catholics. But even now they are judged as criminals because they participate in “unregistered religious activities.”

What is lacking in the agreement is a clearer gesture of unity with the underground Catholics.

If the agreement does not bear fruit, I fear a loss of esteem for the universal Church, which will be undermined.

What is the ideal result of the agreement, from the perspective of the Holy See? 

One positive point is that the Pope is involved in the appointment of bishops, at least at the end of the process. This will deny the party the possibility of creating a schismatic Church through new ordinations. But it is not yet certain whether the Pope will be able to influence the quality of the candidates.


The Holy See Press Office described the agreement as a “beginning” of “a process” and not its “end.” What are the next steps in this process?

There is the question of the governmental recognition of all the underground bishops; of the dioceses entrusted to them; the release of some bishops under house arrest or who disappeared at the hands of the police; and whether the unofficial priests and bishops will be able to exercise their ministry even without belonging to the Patriotic Association. Until now, it has been obligatory to register at the government offices and automatically enroll in the association. But this is meant to create an “independent” Church, something unacceptable for Catholics.


What is the significance of terming this a “pastoral” agreement rather than a “diplomatic” one? Why was it important for Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, to note this?

I think this means that (at least for now) the diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Republic of China (Taiwan) are not in question. In the past, the People’s Republic had always demanded that in order to start a dialogue, the Holy See would have to cut relations with Taiwan. Instead, now the dialogue has begun, and relations have not been cut.


What do we know about the papal right of veto of episcopal candidates? From what we can determine, how will it work? 

Until less than a year ago, China demanded that the Pope have only a temporary veto power: After the government presented a candidate, the Pope would have three months to communicate his refusal in writing. But the government had the opportunity to resubmit the candidate and proceed with his ordination anyway.

We do not know if things have improved. We will have to verify this with the next ordinations.


Are there concerns about the reliability and fidelity of the bishops who have entered into full communion with the Church, and what about future bishops who will be appointed? 

Some Catholics in China are scandalized by the return to communion of some bishops, known to have lovers and children. But the Pope said he had examined their dossiers. The fear is, however, that, with the government choosing the candidates, it will always present people who have been “tamed” to accept the party, rather than people full of faith and the desire to evangelize.


How does the agreement advance Beijing’s stated desire for the “Sinicization” (bringing under the influence of Chinese culture) of religions in China?

The Sinicization of religions was launched by the party years before this agreement. Beijing does not need the Vatican in order to subjugate religions and make them swear loyalty to the Party, to raise the flag over church buildings, etc. But there is the risk that, with the agreement, the universal Church, and with it, the Pope, will become silent in the face of persecution and the lack of freedom. The Pope, however, has urged for a dialogue with the political authorities, done respectfully and without either side challenging the other.


Do you expect that Catholics in China will enjoy any additional freedoms? Will there be any easing of the persecution of the Church and a lifting of the ban on young people under 18 years old excluded from worship and religious education in China?

We do not know what the future will bring. At present, we are witnessing the opposite: Since the dialogues have begun, there has been a crescendo of persecutions, inspections, churches destroyed, crosses burnt. I think the party is sensing its end is near.


Does the deal leave untouched the Vatican’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan? What has the reaction been from Taipei? 

For now, diplomatic relations with Taiwan are safe. I imagine that a dialogue between China and the Vatican to open diplomatic relations will take even longer. In Taiwan, the reaction is one of apparent tranquility among the political leaders, but of concern on the part of Catholics and the Taiwanese, who see in relations with the Vatican a sort of safety anchor to travel and move about Europe and the world.


How are Chinese Catholics in the underground Church reacting?

Some have told us they appreciate this “beginning” and are asking that their bishops be released soon. Others suspect that the Chinese government will not respect any agreement. Still others feel betrayed by the Pope, who has never taken them into consideration during this period of dialogue.

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