ROME — The Vatican said Saturday that it had reached a provisional deal with the Chinese government to end a decades-old power struggle over the right to appoint bishops in China. It was the Communist country’s first formal recognition of the pope’s authority within the Roman Catholic Church in the world’s most populous nation, Vatican officials said.
Under the deal, Pope Francis recognized the legitimacy of seven bishops appointed by the Chinese government. Because they had not been selected by the Vatican, they had previously been excommunicated.
The agreement was in keeping with pope’s outreach to parts of the world where he hopes to increase the church’s presence and spread its message. It gives the church greater access to a huge population where the growth of Protestantism is far outpacing Catholicism.
But for critics loath to share any of the church’s authority with an authoritarian government, the accord marked a shameful retreat and the setting of a dangerous precedent for future relations with other countries.
If finalized, the deal would be the biggest breakthrough in often frosty relations between the two sides since they severed diplomatic ties in 1951. It could lead them to re-establish formal relations, but as a condition China would require the Vatican to cut ties with its rival, Taiwan.
If the Vatican agreed, that would mark a major victory for China.
Other big questions remain, including who will have the final say over appointing bishops in China: the pope or the Chinese government. Neither side provided a clear answer.
The deal comes at a time when the pope is under enormous scrutiny for the church’s handling of clerical sex abuse, one of several issues that conservative forces within the church have seized on to weaken Francis. The agreement with China, which they deeply opposed, is likely to fuel that discontent.
Pope Francis has for years talked about his desire to visit China, where Roman Catholicism has steadily lost ground in the face of intensifying crackdowns and surveillance on religious groups under President Xi Jinping. Protestants, whose faith is spreading fast around the country, have largely eclipsed the percentage in China of Catholics, who number about 10 million to 12 million.
China’s Catholics are divided among those who attend government-approved churches and underground churches that are loyal only to the Vatican.
For decades, many Chinese Catholics have risked arrest and persecution by worshiping in the underground churches led by bishops appointed secretly by popes. China’s Communist government has erected a parallel structure: a state-sanctioned, state-controlled Catholic church. For years, dating back three papacies, the Vatican has sought to unify the two communities.
Traveling with the pope in Vilnius, Lithuania, a Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, told reporters that the aim of the accord is “allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.”
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, said that the pope had committed “to make concrete fraternal gestures of reconciliation,” and suggested that the truce would leave the church better able to function in China.
Each side had claimed an absolute right to choose bishops and control the church in China.
The Vatican’s initial statements did not release many details of the accord. But for months, the two sides were discussing a resolution under which the Vatican would formally acknowledge the government-sanctioned bishops while the pope would retain the right to approve future appointments.
Reached in Beijing, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, a lead negotiator for the Vatican, said the agreement provided for “the intervention of the Holy Father for sure” in the selection of bishops. But when pressed, he would not say whether that meant a papal veto over appointments made by the Chinese government. He said only that “the Holy Father gets to say something about the appointment of bishops.”
The Chinese government did not clarify the issue either. China’s foreign ministry issued a two-sentence statement confirming that a “temporary agreement” on the appointment of bishops had been signed.
“China and the Vatican will continue to maintain communications, and promote progress in the process of improving bilateral relations,” said the statement published on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
The Vatican took a step in January in its efforts to unify the two Catholic communities in China, asking two underground bishops to step aside in favor of government-appointed bishops. One of the two preferred by the government was a member of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament.
The state-sanctioned bishops who took the places of the two underground bishops were among the seven the Vatican formally accepted on Saturday. It was not clear what would become of more than 30 underground bishops working in China who were chosen by the pope but not recognized by the Chinese government.
The church’s move toward rapprochement with China has run into resistance from clerics and parishioners who have worried about forfeiting the independence they have asserted — often at great cost — by defying the government.
“What are they going to do about the underground bishops not recognized by China?” the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions and the editor of Asianews.it, said in an interview. “Or those that are in jail, or those who don’t want to belong to the patriotic church, what will happen to them?”
Father Cervellera said the Holy See press office had underlined the fact the accord was provisional and “more like a promise” that a long-term solution would be found.
Although details of the deal were not made public by either side and may never be officially released, a person close to the negotiations said it would allow Beijing to nominate bishops and the pope to veto unacceptable choices. This would effectively mean a more formal version of a similar arrangement in the early 2000s, which allowed consultations between the two sides.
“What’s important is the re-establishment of communion between the two churches,” said Alberto Melloni, director of the Foundation for Religious Sciences “Giovanni XXIII” in Bologna. “The pope has brought home the greatest diplomatic success” in recent church history. He argued that the deal empowered the Vatican as a voice on the international scene.
But members of the Catholic community in China and Rome have urged the pope not to sacrifice the two underground bishops loyal to the pope in the dioceses of Shantou and Mindong, who have endured years of hardship.
Critics of the deal, including a prominent cardinal in Hong Kong, have argued that it would send a signal that the Vatican did not stand up for those who stood up for it.
Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, under secretary for the Holy See’s relations with states, met Saturday with Wang Chao, deputy minister for foreign affairs of the People’s Republic of China, and signed the provisional agreement, which foresees “periodic reviews of its application.”
The deal, which has several times seemed on the brink of fruition only to collapse, comes after negotiation teams met in Rome in June, when the Vatican apparently assured the Chinese that the pope would lift the excommunications of the government-appointed bishops.
When the deal seemed imminent in February, the retired archbishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, excoriated a potential reconciliation as putting Chinese Catholics in a Communist-controlled “cage” and accused the Vatican of “selling out” those followers.
“A church enslaved by the government is no real Catholic Church,” he said.
He also said at the time that the Vatican had asked one of the underground bishops to step aside to make way for one authorized by the Communist government. The Vatican had by then already received an official request from the Chinese to recognize the seven state-authorized Chinese bishops whom the Vatican had considered illegitimate.
The church has had a permanent presence in China for more than 400 years, when Jesuits, the order to which Francis belongs, arrived as advisers to the imperial court. After being banned in the early 18th century over the church’s refusal to recognize certain Chinese cultural traditions, the church grew rapidly in the 19th century, when foreign armies forced China to allow in missionaries.
After the Communist takeover of China in 1949, ties between the two rapidly worsened and diplomatic relations were severed in 1951. The Vatican kept diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and often pursued an aggressively anti-Communist policy. For its part, Beijing began appointing bishops and priests, giving it control over the church’s hierarchy.
Efforts to heal the rift go back to the papacy of John Paul II, but these efforts foundered on the issue of appointing the clergy, which the Vatican sees as fundamental to its control of the church but which Beijing does not want to see outsourced to a foreign state.
In striking the deal, Pope Francis did what his predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II, did not. But he also went beyond their steps toward reconciliation.
In 2007, Pope Benedict recognized the celebration of sacraments inside the state’s official churches, and selected Cardinal Parolin, a senior diplomat, to guide the negotiations with China. When Pope Francis selected Cardinal Parolin as his secretary of state, it was largely seen as a sign that he had moved a deal with China up the priority list.
In 2014, China allowed the pope to fly over its airspace on his way to South Korea.
Critics of an agreement with China are rife within the church. In the United States, it has been harshly criticized by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Opponents have argued that the pope risked setting a terrible precedent by folding to an authoritarian power with a record of human rights abuses and persecution of religious groups.
But the church has been making concessions to secular powers since before Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne in the year 800. In the 16th century, the pope gave a French king the right to appoint major clerics and Pope Pius VII signed a similar agreement with Napoleon in the 19th century.
The Vatican accepted limitations to operate under Communist governments such as Vietnam’s. Mr. Melloni also recalled the church’s Ostpolitik, in which it dealt with communist regimes in Europe’s east during the Cold War.
“The strategy of the Holy See,” he said, “has always been to negotiate.”
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