Vatican, China Consider Deal on Selection of Bishops After Decades of Division

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from The Wall Street Journal,

Proposed compromise could draw fierce protests from Chinese Catholics.

Negotiators for the Vatican and Beijing reached a compromise on who selects Catholic bishops in China, said people familiar with the matter, potentially marking a major step toward ending six decades of estrangement.

If Pope Francis and Chinese leaders sign off on the proposed deal, the pope would accept eight bishops ordained by the Chinese government without the Vatican’s permission. But the deal would leave many other issues unresolved, including the role of China’s state-run Catholic institutions.

Negotiators are waiting for the pope’s decision; if he agrees, the final decision will be up to Beijing. It would be a diplomatic breakthrough for the pope, who has eagerly pursued an opening to China that eluded his predecessors, though re-establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican—which Beijing severed in 1951—would remain a distant goal.

Vatican officials, however, are bracing for strong protests from Chinese Catholics in the so-called underground church, some of whose members have suffered imprisonment or other punishment for defying government control of the church, and who could regard the agreement as a lopsided win for Beijing and hence a betrayal of their fidelity.

The deal would defer many thorny issues, including the legal status of underground Chinese bishops loyal to Rome, who currently operate without government approval.

The agreement would also mean the end of Vatican approval for ordinations of underground bishops, meaning that all new leaders of the Catholic hierarchy in China would be men acceptable to Beijing.

Vatican negotiators aren’t happy about the deal but consider it the best they can hope for at this time, according to people familiar with the matter. It would be a historic breakthrough from Rome’s point of view, since the Communist government would for the first time recognize the pope’s jurisdiction as head of the Catholic Church in China.

Pope Francis has spoken publicly of his desire for better relations with Beijing, and has avoided angering China, refraining from criticism of its human-rights record and declining to meet the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing accuses of seeking Tibetan independence.

China requires all Catholics to register with the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a state-controlled body that supervises the mainland Catholic community but isn’t recognized by the Vatican. The country’s Catholic population, which is estimated to number at least 10 million today, remains divided between official and unregistered underground communities.

Christianity has spread markedly in China over recent years, especially in the form of evangelical Protestantism, and has proved disproportionately popular among middle-class and elite Chinese. But the Catholic Church’s evangelical efforts have been hindered by the division between official and underground communities.

The agreement would allow Chinese authorities to present a set of candidates for the role of bishop of a particular diocese. The pope would then choose among the candidates or reject all the options and demand fresh names. The Vatican would demand the freedom to investigate candidates’ backgrounds thoroughly as a condition for their approval.

“The Chinese government would still retain effective control over who becomes a bishop,” said Ren Yanli, a Catholicism specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “The final word remains with the Chinese government.”

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