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China deal not best possible, says Vatican official

Gallagher said before the deal was signed there was unease within the Vatican, but the deal moved ahead
Chinese Christians attend Christmas Eve mass at a Catholic church in Beijing, on Dec. 24, 2016

Chinese Christians attend Christmas Eve mass at a Catholic church in Beijing, on Dec. 24, 2016. (Photo by WANG ZHAO / AFP)

Published: March 15, 2023 12:10 PM GMT
Updated: April 03, 2023 10:55 AM GMT

A top Vatican official says the Vatican-China agreement on the appointment of bishops in the communist country is “not the best deal possible” because of the other party.

Monsignor Paul Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, in an interview with US-based EWTN journalist Colm Flynn, said the deal “could work better” and added that negotiations are on to improve the deal.

The Vatican-China agreement was first signed in 2018 for two years but renewed twice in 2020 and 2022, each time for two years.

The deal was the result of negotiations over a period of about 30 years and “a long process under three pontificates, and most of the agreement was already agreed and accepted by the Holy See and by the Chinese authorities already in the time of Pope Benedict,” the English prelate said.

The Vatican and China severed formal diplomatic ties in 1949 after the communists seized power. Since then, the appointment of Catholic bishops became a bone of contention between China and the Vatican.

The troubles intensified after the Chinese Communist Party created the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a state-sanctioned body to oversee Catholic Church in China, in 1957.

The association started appointing bishops without the Vatican mandate. The clergy who refused to abide by the state rules and orders continued to face harassment, forced disappearance, and house arrest.

Millions of Catholics refused to join the “patriotic church” and remained loyal to the pope despite various levels of state persecution. They came to be known as the “underground church.”

Gallagher said before the deal was signed there was unease within the Vatican, but the deal moved ahead.

“As Cardinal Parolin has said on numerous occasions, it wasn't really a great time to sign the deal, for various reasons. It was always going to be difficult; it was always going to be used by the Chinese party to bring greater pressure on the Catholic community, particularly on the so-called underground church,” he said.

Despite the challenges, improvement in the deal is “a work in process” and the Vatican remains “committed to carrying forward that dialogue,” he said.  

Over the years, “a greater understanding” has grown up between the two parties and they are trying to “maximize” it, he said, adding that due to Chinese domestic politics, the deal can achieve fruits “quite slowly.”

However, the Chinese government, Catholic Church in China, and the Vatican are not looking for short-term goals in “months or even years,” he pointed out.

“And we hope that, in time, the relations between the Catholic Church in China will be much more normal, much more fluid, much more fruitful,” he added.

The deal, Church officials say, aims to unite an estimated 10 million Catholics in China, who stand divided into two churches. Since the deal, neither the Vatican nor China has appointed bishops without the agreement of the other side.

However, only six bishops have been appointed since 2018 and the Vatican recognized several bishops “illicitly” ordained by China. Reports say more than 40 dioceses in China continue without bishops.

Observers say, in the long run, the Vatican aims to re-establish formal diplomatic ties with China.

The deal, whose provisions were never made public, faced strong opposition from Church leaders and Chinese Catholics who termed it “a betrayal” of underground Catholics. Some critics say the deal ignored their sufferings to be loyal to the Vatican.

Human rights groups alleged that deal forced the Vatican to be silent on China’s serious human rights violations of ethnic and religious groups such as Christians, and Uyghur Muslims, besides the heavy-handed crackdown on the democracy movement in Hong Kong in recent years.

Rights groups and media reports say the Chinese regime has weaponized the deal to force Catholic clergy and laypeople to join the official church and continued to terrorize Catholics with an aim to dismantle the underground church.

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