Signs of détente in relations between Vatican and China

After “months of stagnation and tension” there has been an improvement in relations between the Vatican and China—“the culmination of months-long efforts to ease tensions with Beijing,” reports journalist Loup Besmond de Senneville in La Croix International (January 30). For Pope Francis, who dreams of visiting the country, China remains a top priority. A 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China providing for their joint appointment of bishops has proved to be a very controversial issue among Catholics, similarly to the Ostpolitik with the Soviet Union of an earlier era. “The secretive, two-year provisional deal, which reportedly allows both parties to accept or reject bishop candidates, has been renewed in 2020 and 2022, each time for two years,” and it is expected to be renewed again in October of this year, UCA News reports (January 31). But no bishop has been jointly appointed since 2021; in 2022 and 2023, two appointments in the form of transfers from one diocese to another were made by China without consulting Rome. Moreover, China had invoked the pandemic as a reason for suspending dialogue. Critics claimed that the Chinese government was outmaneuvering the church.

Source: St. Thomas More Priory, Orlando, FL.

In late January, however, three bishops were consecrated in a week with the pope’s approval, one of them for a new diocese erected “to conform with China’s geographic delineation of the area” (Associated Press, January 31). Besmond de Senneville reports that the latest developments are the result of months of behind-the-scenes efforts involving experienced Vatican diplomats, citing the late-November dispatch of a small team under Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli to Beijing. Another key figure in the climate of détente has been the 64-year-old Jesuit, Cardinal Stephen Chow of Hong Kong, who, unlike his predecessors, is said to be trusted by the Chinese government. According to a high-ranking Vatican official, “Chinese authorities now consult the bishops for any new appointment, which was not the case before.” But Besmond de Senneville warns against painting too rosy a picture of the situation. Several Vatican officials are disappointed with the results of the agreement, while experts claim that Chinese authorities are reinforcing control over the life of Catholic parishes—with several Chinese bishops critical of the agreement “reportedly missing.”