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China deal: has the Vatican painted itself into a corner?

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Supporters say the deal is uniting the country's divided Church, but just how much ground has the Vatican ceded?

Shortly before Christmas, the Vatican sent a delegation to China to discuss the controversial deal unveiled in September. The pact’s wording remains a guarded secret, but it is believed to give the officially atheist, authoritarian Chinese government the right to appoint Catholic bishops. The Pope is said to have power of veto.

When the “provisional agreement” was announced, the Vatican rehabilitated eight government-backed bishops who were formerly excommunicated or otherwise considered illegitimate. The Holy See has since asked two “underground” bishops, who refused to compromise with the communist regime, to step aside so that two recently reconciled bishops could take over their dioceses.

In October, the Chinese government sent two bishops to attend the youth synod in Rome. Meanwhile, ironically, officials have banned young Chinese people from attending churches. One of the two delegates – Bishop Joseph Guo of Chengde – has served for three terms in the National People’s Congress, Beijing’s “parliament”, though clerics are forbidden to hold public office under canon law. Guo was automatically excommunicated when he was ordained bishop in 2010 but was among the eight prelates recognised in September.

The Vatican-China deal is, unsurprisingly, deeply unpopular within the wider Catholic Church. According to America magazine, even sources within the Holy See have admitted that it is “not a good agreement”.

But the arrangement does have its supporters, notably among the Jesuits, an order known for taking risks to advance the faith in the Far East. They argue that the Vatican has no choice but to engage a regime which, they freely admit, is among the world’s worst human rights abusers. The alternative, they say, is to abandon China’s estimated 10 million Catholics entirely to the government’s whims. They believe that the agreement gives the Holy See some leverage over an otherwise unaccountable state.

They can also point to Vietnam, where the Holy See made a somewhat similar agreement a decade ago. Late last month the officially communist country reportedly agreed to allow the Vatican to appoint a resident nuncio in Hanoi. This would be a major step towards establishing full diplomatic relations between the two states. So the policy of engagement – the “Vietnam model” ­– is possibly bearing fruit.

But critics of the China deal would argue that Vietnam does not offer a precise analogy. There, the Holy See proposes three names for each episcopal vacancy and Hanoi then selects one. So the Vatican has more control over appointments than it appears to have in China.

Opponents of the China deal prefer to base their arguments on facts rather than analogies. Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, offered a recent pithy example in the National Catholic Register. She wrote:

In October, in Hubei, the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department and the Patriotic Association convened a session to “re-educate the priests”. From October 3-12, authorities toppled the crosses from [several Catholic churches in Henan and Zhejiang provinces]. On October 25, authorities finished demolishing two popular Catholic pilgrimage shrines, Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows in Shanxi and Our Lady of the Mountain in Guizhou.

The deal’s supporters would acknowledge some or all of these facts. But they would argue that they should not be seen in isolation and that it’s important to see the bigger picture: that the Holy See is uniting the formerly divided underground and official Catholic communities. The new unified Church will, they argue, be stronger and better equipped to survive under a hi-tech atheist tyranny.

But it is reasonable to fear that the Vatican has painted itself into a corner. In China last year believers – including Uighur Muslims in the western Xinjiang region – suffered arguably the worst persecution since the Cultural Revolution. The Holy See was unable to raise its voice publicly against this because it was discussing the minutiae of episcopal appointments with Chinese officials. But surely the Vatican’s moral voice cannot remain muffled indefinitely.