In September 2018, Beijing and the Holy See reached a provisional agreement regarding the appointment of Chinese bishops. Despite growing worries and mixed signals from China, the agreement was renewed in 2020. Pope Francis’ strong personal identification with the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci and his flexible pastoral approach allowed him to achieve what his predecessors did not. While the agreement ended the presence of illicit bishops, it left many issues unsolved, such as the implementation of the supposedly agreed bishop appointment model and the ambiguous status of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Pope Francis’ approach to China
Pope Francis made history by becoming the first Jesuit Pope in 2013. Coincidentally, Xi Jinping also became the President of China on the same day. Francis’ identity as a Jesuit speaks volumes about his engagement with China. On several occasions, Francis expressed his admiration of Matteo Ricci, the famous Jesuit who travelled to China during the Ming Dynasty. Ricci is praised by modern Catholics and in Chinese cultural memory in general for his friendly approach towards the Ming Court and the Chinese culture. In an interview given to Francesco Sisci, a Beijing-based Italian researcher, Francis exclaimed:
I looked into Matteo Ricci’s life and I saw how this man felt the same thing in the exact way I did, admiration, and how he was able to enter into dialogue with this great culture, with this age-old wisdom. He was able to ‘encounter’ it.
Francis was not the first Pope to promote Ricci as a model. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI lauded the contributions of Ricci. However, Francis was the first to express close identification with the Jesuit missionary.
Moreover, Francis’ practical pastoral direction also allowed him to make more compromises than his predecessors. In his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, he argued that:
[d]iversity is a beautiful thing when it can constantly enter into a process of reconciliation and seal a sort of cultural covenant resulting in a ‘reconciled diversity’.
Francis’ approach towards China focuses far more on achieving practical results than defending the principles of the Catholic faith. This shows a stark contrast with the papacy of Benedict. Indeed, Francis refrained from making any comments about the sufferings of Chinese Catholics before reaching the deal with Beijing.
Let’s look at the content of the agreement and the outstanding issues. First, the agreement put a controversial end to the presence of illicit Chinese bishops (bishops appointed by Beijing but not recognized by the Holy See). Before the agreement was reached, there were seven active illicit bishops. Pope Francis ended this situation by recognizing them.
Technically speaking, ending the presence of illicit bishops was easy. It only required the Pope to make the decision. Eight illicit bishops in total were forgiven and recognized. Among them, two were once excommunicated by Benedict. However, that they were recognized by the Pope does not mean that they were accepted by the faithful.
Second, the agreement partially secured a consensual procedure to deal with the future (s)election and consecration of bishops. A certain “China model” was reportedly established by the agreement for this purpose, though very little is known to the public. Candidates would most likely be nominated by the Chinese authority together with the local dioceses for the approval of the Pope.
However, at this point, it’s unclear what would happen if there was a disagreement between the two sides.
Third, the agreement touched on the issue of the division and administration of dioceses. In some provinces, the division of dioceses recognized by the Holy See is different from those sanctioned by Beijing, leading to repeated disputes.
In certain provinces, for example, Heilongjiang and Hebei, two bishops claim to have authority and jurisdiction over the same groups of faithful and church properties.
Moreover, the status of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a party organ, is still unclear under the agreement. So far the papacy has not clarified its position for Chinese Catholics. As a result, many Chinese priests and bishops remain hesitant over whether to join it or not, while the authority continues to force priests to register with the government and join the Association in the name of the agreement.
Finally, the agreement did not address the issues of the legalization of ‘underground’ bishops not recognized by the Communist Party, and the fate of clergy who were imprisoned or under house arrest.
A number of frictions and differences between Beijing and the Holy See will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. Catholics on the ground in China, meanwhile, will have to use whatever resources they have to cultivate spaces for practicing their faith.