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Who has the upper hand in the Vatican-China deal? We may soon find out

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On Monday, the Vatican marked another milestone in its relations with China. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, inaugurated the Holy See’s pavilion at the Beijing International Horticultural Exhibition. The pavilion, on the theme “Live Green, Live Better”, displays precious Vatican documents on the medicinal properties of herbs and a reproduction of Wenzel Peter’s painting Adam and Eve in the Earthly Paradise.

The relationship between the Holy See and China is, of course, far from Edenic. There are still no formal diplomatic ties between the two. There haven’t been since 1951, two years after the Communist Party of China seized power. But the exhibition invitation suggests that relations have warmed since the two states signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops last September.

Little is known for certain about the agreement as neither China nor the Vatican has made the text public. It is thought that when a see falls vacant, the Chinese authorities will present a list of acceptable candidates to the Holy See. The Pope will then either accept one of them or ask for a new list.

This new mechanism – which, needless to say, is controversial – has reportedly faced its first tests. According to the respected website AsiaNews.it, the first two bishops have been appointed under the agreement. Fr Anthony Yao Shun has been named bishop of the Inner Mongolian Diocese of Wumeng (formerly Jining) and Fr Stephen Xu Hongwei has been chosen as bishop of Hanzhong. But AsiaNews.it argues that the appointments did not represent a true test of the agreement, as both men had received the Holy See’s approval years earlier and both were the only candidates for their respective sees. The Pope therefore did not need to make any potentially difficult decisions.

The procedure for these appointments may, however, surprise Western Catholics who are used to bishops being named in Rome after discreet consultations in their home countries. In Wumeng and Hanzhong, the candidates were elected by priests, nuns and lay people meeting in a hotel under the watchful gaze of the local authorities. “The event is conducted … in a secular environment, almost like a civil event,” reports AsiaNews.it. “Although it is called [a] democratic election, in fact it was not, as it was not conducted according to the requirements of canon law.” Nevertheless, the Vatican is likely to be relieved that the appointments have proceeded smoothly and that the two new bishops have its full approval (and well as that of the Chinese authorities).

But the provisional agreement is likely to face sterner challenges before long. It may then become clear who has the upper hand: Chinese officials, who are reportedly able to select all the candidates, or the Pope, who is said to have a veto.

The Vatican hopes that the provisional agreement will help to heal the rift between members of the underground Church and the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. In a letter to Chinese Catholics last September, Pope Francis said the deal sought to “re-establish and preserve the full and visible unity of the Catholic community in China”, which has approximately 10 million members.

It is too early to judge whether this goal can be achieved. But according to another trustworthy news source, ucanews.com, the agreement has placed a strain on some Catholic families. The site describes the plight of Mary Wang, an underground Catholic married to a member of the state-approved Church in Jiangsu province. Her husband has urged her to leave the underground Church, arguing that the Pope has legitimised the state-backed one. “My husband and I used to pray together every night before,” she says ruefully. Meanwhile, government officials are reportedly telling underground believers that, by signing the provisional agreement, the Pope has signalled that he wants them to join the state church.

Perhaps familial divisions are inevitable in a country as large and complicated as China. But such cases underline what is at stake: not only domestic harmony, but also peace among the country’s bitterly divided Catholic communities. If the Holy See is too passive, then it will alienate the underground faithful, who still face persecution. But if it is too combative, it will make life harder for state-approved Catholics.

The path ahead is narrow and treacherous. We should pray for the Vatican officials who are about to walk it