Next month, the 2018 Vatican-China deal expires. Those close to the negotiations, both in Rome and in Beijing, now confidently predict a one-year extension to the two-year deal to be agreed.
But while the last two years have failed to deliver any measurable progress on the Vatican’s priorities, the status quo of all-dialogue-and-no-delivery has strengthened China’s position over the Church in the country, and neutralized diplomatic pressure internationally.
The original provisional agreement, the details of which remain unpublished, had a two-fold aim: to unify the underground Church with the state-controlled patriotic church under Roman leadership, and to provide a workable means for appointing bishops in China.
At the end of its term, many Catholics in China conclude that, by both measures, the deal has failed.
Two years after the “underground Church” was said to have been effectively eliminated in China, many Chinese bishops and priests still refuse to sign up to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, citing their objection to official pledges to the state authority and to Communist ideology which they are required to sign. Government officials have retaliated by harassing them; shutting down churches and evicting them from their homes, or by arresting them.
At the same time, and despite Rome’s acceptance of several communist-appointed bishops, no measurable progress has been made on the task of filling vacant dioceses on the mainland. More than 50 sees in China are currently empty. Those which have been filled in recent months have welcomed newly appointed bishops well past retirement age, even in their 80s, who cannot be reasonably expected to bring stability to the local Church.
Those close to the appointment process in Rome have expressed frustration with the process of episcopal appointments — the vaunted centerpiece of the entire deal. Vatican sources tell CNA that lists of acceptable candidates are carefully compiled, selections are made and sent for consultation to Beijing, where they are met with silence.
China has, according to those familiar with the talks, also kept silent when confronted about missing or arrested clergy. The matter is raised, officials in Rome insist, but no answers are given.
What, then, could the Vatican hope to achieve by extending a deal which has yielded no results?
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