The long dispute between China and the Catholic Church may be close to a breakthrough. A “Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China concerning the nomination of Bishops”, signed by China and the Vatican sets out to achieve one set of Catholic Bishops approved by both parties for the first time since the 1949 revolution.
The Vatican’s and China’s dispute about how to appoint Bishops has meant that there has been two sets of Bishops for decades. One set appointed by the Vatican, one appointed by the Chinese government. But now there is only one.
“Today, for the first time all the Bishops in China are in communion with the Bishop of Rome, with the Successor of Peter,” the Vatican’s statement says.
The agreement recognises eight bishops, each of which had been appointed without the Pope – or his predecessors – being involved.
“This has been about dialogue, patient listening on both sides even when people come from very different standpoints,” the Director of the Holy See Press Office, Greg 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 recognised by Chinese authorities.”
Burke was travelling with Pope Francis in Lithuania.
The Global Times, an English language paper published by the official People’s Daily adds further detail. “The two sides put in great effort to achieve the agreement and their good intentions deserve to be known,” said Bishop Fang Jianping, deputy head of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China.
“The provisional agreement will open a new page for the China-Vatican relations, Fang told the Global Times on Saturday.”
The aim of the agreement is to have one united Catholic Church in China.
“What is required now is unity, is trust and a new impetus; to have good Pastors, recognised by the Successor of Peter – by the Pope – and by the legitimate civil Authorities” Cardinal Pietro Parolin the Vatican Secretary of State said. “And we believe – we hope, we hope – that the Agreement will be an instrument for these objectives, for these aims, with the cooperation of all.”
Details of how the Bishops in China will be appointed in the future has not been released. However Crux, a catholic news website suggests that the model used in Vietnam, where the Vatican picks bishops from a selection of candidates proposed by the government, will be used in China.
Crux’s John L Allen Jr, points out that this deal has been a priority for Pope Francis: “It’s been abundantly clear that it’s a top priority for Francis and detractors though he might never get it.” Significantly, Allen also sees it as an example of where Francis has acted in continuity with his predecessors St John Paul II and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.