In signing the China deal, the Vatican is taking an enormous risk

Pope Francis with pilgrims from China in St Peter's Square (CNS)

Confirmation today that a long-awaited deal between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops has divided Catholics, and China-watchers, around the world.

Some welcome the agreement, hoping it will end a stalemate between the Chinese Communist Party and the Holy See that has lasted for almost 70 years, and that it might be a step towards better protecting, and uniting, Catholics in the world’s most populous country.

Others, notably Hong Kong’s retired Cardinal Joseph Zen, have reacted with fury, arguing that the Vatican negotiators are naïve in believing China’s regime.

While the full text of the agreement has not yet been released, there is an agreement on the key question that has been the sticking point until now: the nomination of bishops. Seven previously excommunicated bishops, appointed by the Chinese regime, are now back in communion with Rome.

Some might argue that, on what has been announced so far, it is not as bad as it could have been. At the moment the question of diplomatic relations has not been resolved, and the Holy See, one of the few states to recognise Taiwan, has not shifted recognition to Beijing, as had been feared. I have been told by a senior Vatican official that the deal is provisional, and that if it does not work it will be reviewed. Greg Burke, the Vatican spokesman, said: “This is not the end of a process. It’s the beginning.”

Yet the timing of this deal could not be more awkward, as China intensifies the most severe crackdown on religious activities since the Cultural Revolution. Regulations on religious affairs issued in February tighten restrictions, and new draft regulations to clamp down on religious expression online were announced earlier this month. Churches have been closed or demolished, crosses destroyed, and children prohibited from attending services.

This crackdown has affected both state-controlled and unregistered churches, Protestant and Catholic. Clergy remain in prison, and human rights lawyers who defend religious believers have been disappeared. Even worse is the crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang, where up to a million people are detained in ‘re-education centres’. And there has been no improvement in the persecution of Tibetan Buddhists or Falun Gong practitioners.

In signing this deal, the Vatican is taking an enormous risk. China’s regime has a record of breaking promises and disregarding agreements. Its dismissal of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, still valid as an international treaty lodged at the United Nations at least until 2047, is a case in point.

Furthermore the Vatican should learn from history. As George Weigel, the biographer of St John Paul II, has argued, it is ironic that this deal is signed in the year that marks the 85th anniversary with the Reischskonkordat with Nazi Germany. While the intentions are no doubt good, the deal with China will be regarded by many as a sell-out. Time will tell.

Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at the human rights organization CSW, and author of ‘From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church’ (Gracewing, 2015).