On September 22, 2018, the Vatican and Beijing signed, for a period of two years, a provisional Agreement, kept secret and concerning the appointment of Catholic bishops in China.
According to information from the Global Times, a daily newspaper in the People’s Republic of China, the Vatican and Beijing are currently in diplomatic contact to renew this expiring agreement. Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, declared that this agreement will be renewed and that it is proof that “the framework agreement has worked well over the past two years,” reports the Chinese daily.
“Both sides can be optimistic about the renewal of the agreement, moving it from a temporary to a permanent one,” said Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, vice-president of the [official] Conference of the bishops of the Catholic Church in China, and bishop of the diocese of Mindong (Fujian, eastern China), to the Chinese daily. The bishop, ordained without a warrant from the Holy See but recognized by Beijing, had been excommunicated by Rome until this sanction was lifted by Pope Francis as part of the Provisional Agreement. Bishop Zhan Silu is one of the seven bishops whose appointment was recognized by Rome in the fall of 2018, validating his appointment by the Catholic Patriotic Association, an official organ of the Communist state.
The renewal of the Agreement “shows that China and the Vatican are satisfied with the framework put in place over the past two years, during which time at least two Chinese bishops have been appointed by the Pope thanks to this agreement,” said Bishop Zhan Silu to the Global Times, adding that without the COVID-19 pandemic, there would have been more. “This is proof that the Holy See can be a reliable and important partner for China,” Italian sinologist Francesco Sisci, researcher at the Center for European Studies at Peking University and expert on European studies and Vatican affairs, told the Global Times.
In this utopian irenic context, we cannot forget the shattering declarations of Bishop Sorondo, on his return from China in 2018, and published in the Spanish edition of Vatican Insider on February 2, 2018. The Argentine bishop listed there all the wonders that he had seen during his trip and said in particular: “I have met an extraordinary China: what people do not understand is that the central Chinese principle is work, work, work. There is nothing else. At the end of the day, as Saint Paul said, those who do not work do not eat.” “At the present time, the people who best realize the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese (sic).”
Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, director of AsiaNews, commented on February 7, 2018: “Bishop Sanchez Sorondo describes a China that does not exist or that vigilant Chinese escorts did not show him.… The bishop, who is President of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, even states that the Chinese are ‘the best implementers of the Church’s social doctrine.’ But perhaps he is not referring to these mass expulsions, [of the inferior and defenseless population to ‘clean up’ the outskirts of mega-cities], which are very similar to a fruit of the ‘culture of waste’ so highly criticized by Pope Francis. … We should perhaps propose the bishop read the daily news tracking violence, arrests of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, abuses on domestic churches, checks on official churches. The same rough road of dialogue between China and the Vatican shows the difficulty with which Beijing is reluctant to swallow drops of religious freedom for Catholics.”
In addition, the Italian agency AsiaNews recalled, Bishop Sanchez Sorondo did not hesitate, in February 2017, during an international meeting on organ trafficking, to fiercely defend Beijing against accusations of forced harvesting of organs for transplants by Chinese doctors on prisoners and condemned to death.
On September 7, 2020, the American Catholic site Crux reported on an online discussion organized on September 4 by the Acton Institute, in which Fr. Cervellera participated. Referring to the article published in the Global Times, the director of AsiaNews clarified “that many officials on the Vatican’s side have praised the deal as something both positive and fruitful, while ‘China has never said anything.’” He went on to mention that the fact that China has been so silent about the agreement leaves him with two impressions: “either the Chinese Communist Party sees the agreement as something positive, or that in their view, ‘the stakes are increasing so much that they ask the Vatican for everything.’ Everything, in this sense,” he said, “would mean that ‘the Vatican must give the ‘okay’ for everything that China does, and certainly they must interrupt their dialogue with Taiwan.’…because in this way, they take away from Taiwan the only point, the only embassy they can have in Europe…the Holy See being its only diplomatic tie in Europe.”
“This agreement in itself should be for the naming of new bishops, but since the agreement was reached, not one new bishop has been named,” Fr. Cervellera added, noting that of the two bishops who have been appointed and the three others who have been recognized by the government in the past two years, all of them had been selected years prior to the 2018 agreement. “So, you can’t say that thanks to the agreement all this has happened.”