China and the Vatican sign provisional agreement on appointment of bishops

This happened faster than one might have expected, even with the 300 year history of the ‘Chinese Rites controversy’. They key, however, was not so much whether traditional Chinese rites were compatible with Roman Catholicism, but who would appoint the bishops. Would it be the Vatican or the state, an old controversy indeed even in Europe? Thus far, no agreement had been reached, so two branches of the Roman Catholic Church have been operating in China, one recognised by the state and the other by the Vatican (more detail here).

But now, after lengthy negotiations, an agreement has at last been reached. As the Global Times reports (see also the here here and here):

China and the Vatican signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops on Saturday, China’s Foreign Ministry announced later that day.

A Vatican delegation held talks with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Chao on Saturday in Beijing, after which the deal was signed, read a statement from the ministry’s website.

The two sides will continue communicating to promote bilateral relations, said the statement.

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.

“Provisional” shows this agreement will be improved and expanded over time, Vatican affairs expert Francesco Sisci told the Global Times on the signing of the provisional agreement between China and the Vatican on Saturday.

The Vatican is the historical continuity of thousands of years of Western civilization. The Chinese government is the continuity of three millennia of history. This deal signals that, for the first time, these two civilizations are meeting as equals, in peace, without the hatred of war or the petty calculations of trade, Sisci said.

The deal does not deserve criticism from Catholic groups as it was reached out of practical needs and to further the global development of the Catholic church, Fang noted.

Critics of the long-waited agreement are merely a “loud minority,” said Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, also chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

“In our interpretation, the critics are a little minority group of people, people who wanted to create trouble,” the bishop told the Global Times in an exclusive interview on Friday.

Sorondo explained the importance of having this deal, or having China better involved in the Catholic world, is that “the country has a large population with good quality people, it observes the common good and it has proved its ability to great missions like fighting against poverty and pollution.”

Note: this is the same Sorondo who observed last year:

Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese …

They (the Chinese) seek the common good, subordinating things to the general good … The dignity of the person is defended …

Liberal thought has liquidated the concept of the common good, not even wanting to take it into account, asserting that it is an empty idea, without any interest. By contrast, the Chinese focus on work and the common good.

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China best realises the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church: Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo

This one is causing no small brouhaha among reactionary Roman Catholics and others. Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who is chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, made the following observations in an interview:

“Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese,” a senior Vatican official has said.

Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, praised the Communist state as “extraordinary”, saying: “You do not have shantytowns, you do not have drugs, young people do not take drugs”. Instead, there is a “positive national conscience”.

The bishop told the Spanish-language edition of Vatican Insider that in China “the economy does not dominate politics, as happens in the United States, something Americans themselves would say.”

Bishop Sánchez Sorondo said that China was implementing Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si better than many other countries and praised it for defending Paris Climate Accord. “In that, it is assuming a moral leadership that others have abandoned”, he added.

As part of the diplomacy efforts, Bishop Sánchez Sorondo visited the country. “What I found was an extraordinary China,” he said. “What people don’t realise is that the central value in China is work, work, work. There’s no other way, fundamentally it is like St Paul said: he who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat.”

Bishop Sánchez Sorondo concluded by saying that China is “developing well” and now has “many points of agreement” with the Vatican.

I never thought I would be quoting the Catholic Herald, but there you go. All of this is part of a serious historical deal in the making between the Chinese government and the Vatican over the appointment of bishops. For the last few centuries, there have been two Roman Catholic Churches in China. One is officially recognised by the state – the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) – and the other is not. A root cause of their difference is an old problem: who appoints bishops, the state or the Vatican? The officially recognised church has bishops who are recognised by the state, while the unofficial church does not. This has been the status quo for the odd century or three.

Now a breakthrough is in the works. Pope Francis has actively encouraged a deal in which future bishops would be appointed by a process that includes input from the government and the Vatican. Things move slowly in the Roman Catholic Church, since this little conflict goes way back to the efforts by Matteo Ricci and then the ‘Rites Controversy’ of the 17th and 18th centuries. But now it may well be resolved and the two branches of the Roman Catholic Church in China may become one – following the model already in place in Vietnam.

Needless to say, Chinese commentary has seen this as a positive development (here, here and here).