When the dust settles and the incense clears away, the “provisional accord” between the Holy See and Beijing that was announced (but not revealed) on Saturday, Sept. 22, will leave both Chinese Catholics and their sisters and brothers in Taiwan wondering what all the fuss was about. The “accord” is only a first concession by Pope Francis to test Beijing’s willingness to engage.
Of course, the Vatican “hopes” the agreement will be “historic” while Beijing doesn’t see fit to tout it at all — except to foreign media, and even then not enthusiastically. It seems that Beijing doesn’t want to draw attention to the Holy Father’s magnanimous acceptance of Beijing’s state-designated “bishops.” Perhaps because further movement depends on the Chinese Communist Party’s recognition of over 40 existing Papal consecrated bishops in China’s underground Catholic Church.
Incongruously, the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, with archangels’ clarions and front-page prominence, declared Sept. 22, 2018, to be “A Date in History.” Why? Because this “provisional accord between China and the Holy See on the appointment of Bishops, is an agreement prepared through decades of long and patient negotiations.” Alas, decades of patient negotiations have yielded no improvement in the fate of China’s Catholics.
A separate Vatican communique issued on the Holy See homepage offered tantalizing hints of the Vatican-Beijing talks: 1) the “Provisional Agreement” is the “fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement”; 2) it “foresees the possibility of periodic reviews of its application”; 3) it concerns the nomination of bishops and 4) “creates the conditions for greater collaboration at the bilateral level.”
The Vatican communique concludes with the upbeat Vatican view — certainly not Beijing’s — that their “shared” hope is that this agreement could possibly “favor a fruitful and forward-looking process of institutional dialogue and may contribute positively to the life of the Catholic Church in China, to the common good of the Chinese people and to peace in the world.”
L’Osservatore foresees that “contrasting and opposing interpretations will be unceasing.” No doubt, Pope Francis himself already is stung by such “interpretations” from Catholics in China and Hong Kong, for the understandable reason that no details were released. But I suspect that the Vatican will also have its own insuperable “contrasting and opposing interpretations” with Beijing over the coming months.
The Holy Father responded to skeptics with a six-page pastoral letter “to the Catholics of China and the Universal Church” on Sept. 26. A heartfelt apologia, Pope Francis’s message expresses his emotion for the past seven decades of suffering endured by the Church in China and admiration for the fidelity and constancy amid trial it has demonstrated. But he alludes to deep resentments and hatreds within the Chinese Church between those who were tortured, robbed of intellect, and martyred for their tenacious faith, and those who compromised when the pain was unendurable. Alas, the compromisers tended to make their Christian life “a museum of memories,” of incense, cassocks, communion and candles, and neglected to live their lives as Catholics in the awareness that “their fellow citizens expect from them a greater commitment to the service of the common good.” He begged Catholics in China to “rise above personal prejudices and conflicts between groups and communities.” And the first step in China’s intra-ecclesial reconciliation is to resolve tensions among the episcopate, both the government-sponsored bishops and the underground.
Getting Pope Francis to lift the excommunication of seven “bishops” appointed by the Chinese Communist Party (without so much as a by-your-leave to the Vatican) was a major win for Beijing. In return, according to Pope Francis’s remarks to reporters, the Communists apparently agreed to a Vatican “veto” of future appointees, but even that is unclear. The fact that Pope Francis insisted only that “It’s not (that the government) names them. It is a dialogue. But the pope will appoint them. Let that be clear,” is a sure sign that it was some kind of tacit understanding and was not part of any written “provisional accord.”
But news leaking from Rome on Thursday, Sept. 28, is profoundly dispiriting. Beijing seeks to eliminate or retire all of the 40 or so remaining Catholic bishops who so far have refused the “leadership” of the Communist Party. And just what kind of “leadership” the state-appointed “bishops” will accept from the Holy Father is left, under the “accord,” to further “dialogue.”
The “dialogue” alluded to by the Holy Father, “requires time and presupposes the good will of both parties.” And Francis quoted an ancient Jesuit missionary in China, Matteo Ricci (利瑪竇), whose pastoral essay to his Chinese friends “On Friendship” (交友論) counseled, “before friendship, one must observe, after becoming friends, one must trust.” Pope Francis then explains to his flock in China that he has “carefully examined every individual personal situation” of excommunicated bishops, and he says, “I have received numerous concrete signs and testimonies ... including from bishops who have damaged communion in the Church,” and in the end, he grants them reconciliation. But there is a condition. “I ask them to express with concrete and visible gestures their restored unity with the Apostolic See.”
A Vatican Press Office statement was less triumphal. The agreement “is not the end of a process. It’s the beginning.” This is diplomatic jargon that means the Vatican has its own timetable for benchmarks of progress separate from the Accord’s written text, including, no doubt, the sincerity of restored bishops’ “concrete and visible gestures of restored unity.” If the benchmarks are not met, then the process cannot progress. The Press Office admits “This has been about ... patient listening on both sides even when people come from very different standpoints.” In other words, the Holy Father is gimlet-eyed about the teleological aims of the Church in stark contrast to the totalitarian goals of the Chinese Communist Party.
Finally, the Vatican Press statement reassures Taiwan and other skeptics that “the objective of the accord is not political i.e. ‘diplomatic’ but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.” Unfortunately, this communique was reached between the Vatican and Beijing foreign ministries, a fact which underscores the “diplomatic” nature of the talks. A genuine negotiation on “episcopal appointments” would have been with the “National Religious Affairs Administration” (NARA), which is directly subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front bureaucracy where resides direct authority over Catholics in China.
And how did China’s “Patriotic Catholics” respond? They came down squarely on Beijing’s side. On Sept. 23, the NARA website posted a statement from “a number” of Patriotic Catholic spokespersons which reasserted that the PCA “adheres to the principle of the independent and self-governing church, to the direction of Sinicization, and to the path of adapting to the socialist society and, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, makes unremitting efforts together with the people of all nationalities in the country to realize ‘China Dream’ of the rejuvenation of the Great Chinese Race.” To this end, the PCA is willing to “carry out friendly exchanges with other Catholic churches on the basis of independence, mutual respect, equality and friendship.” No mention of unity with the Vatican, and no sign of “concrete and visible gestures” of gratitude for Papal indulgence.
Somehow, it seems that the Vatican may have been negotiating with the wrong bureaucracy on the Appointment of Bishops. Indeed, there was no indication that the Holy See would be able to name any future bishops at all, or if they will be restricted to mere approval of Party-appointed bishops. Very few details were forthcoming.
The most curious aspect of the “Date in History” was how little notice L’Osservatore gave to the underwhelming note deep in the Chinese foreign ministry website (in Chinese only) that the “provisional agreement” covered “the appointment of bishops” and a vague consensus that “China and Vatican will continue to maintain channels of communication and promote the process of improving relations between the two sides.” While a few laudatory plaudits for the agreement (quoting prominent Italians and a few patriotic Chinese “bishops”) were posted on the Global Times English-language website, there was nothing in the Chinese-language media. The Chinese-language website of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a perfunctory two sentences that Vice Minister Wang Chao (王超) and Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, Undersecretary for the Holy See’s Relations with States, had met and signed a “provisional” something.
The Bottom Line for Taipei? It seems that “Republic of China” ties with the Holy See are safe for the short term. Having given up any demands that Beijing recognize the underground bishops in communion with the Holy See, the Vatican’s diplomatic ties with the ROC are Pope Francis’s last bargaining chip unless the Pope is prepared to excommunicate the state bishops a second time. So, this is “only the beginning” stage of the Vatican’s rapprochement with Beijing. Judging from the intense pressure from virtually the entire Church in Taiwan as well as the vociferous opposition of Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen (陳日君), and considering the near unanimous negativity from the lay Catholic media worldwide, Pope Francis cannot move forward with Beijing unless and until he sees significant new freedoms for China’s remaining loyal Catholic clergy and laity and an end to the persecutions great and small.
No doubt, His Holiness the Dalai Lama can suggest to Pope Francis the types of benchmarks he should hope for. The Chinese Communist Party, for example, is very engaged in the Buddhist theology of “incarnation” and the absolute necessity for the next Dalai Lama to be reincarnated inside Chinese sovereign territory. And no doubt, various Islamic leaders in Xinjiang could brief him on the Communist Party’s thoughtful establishment of resorts, summer camps, and retreat venues offering “vocational training” for tens of thousands of Muslim Uighur men.
In short, Pope Francis can only hope that the situation for China’s underground Catholics doesn’t deteriorate to the level of Tibetan Buddhists or Uighur Muslims. He certainly will not see any new freedoms for Catholics, and as such, he will be unable to move forward on the formal “diplomatic” front. Pope Francis must also consider the Holy See’s unfortunate history of compromising with dictatorships that persecute other religions, but lay off the Catholics because they don’t challenge those persecutions or anything else the regime does.
Finally, over the past several months the Trump Administration voiced its alarm at the erosion of Taipei’s formal diplomatic relations, taking to task several Central American and Caribbean countries for failing to take Taiwan’s “status quo” into account as they derecognized the “Republic of China” in favor of the PRC. Last February, columnists for Rome’s Coriere della Sera evening newspaper reported that “a representative of the US State Department” cautioned the Vatican that “the secrecy and the lack of transparency” in the China talks “will cost you the information battle in the Western media.” Clearly, the Department of State had been concerned for some time. I suspect that the Trump White House and his Ambassador to the Holy See already are playing a more direct role in Vatican-Taipei relations.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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