A well-wisher is pictured in a file photo kissing the ring of Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin following his episcopal ordination at St. Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai. CNS photo/courtesy of UCAnews

Editorial: Long road to unity

  • October 29, 2020

The news that the Vatican and the Chinese government extended their ground-breaking but controversial 2018 provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops was met with a mixture of skepticism, hope and dismay.

We are saying a prayer that hope wins out.

Dealing with China has never been easy and the last two years have not proven to be otherwise, despite the agreement that ended a 67-year-old break in diplomatic ties between the Holy See and China. At stake is the religious freedom of about 12 million Catholics among China’s population of 1.4 billion. They have been essentially divided: an “underground” Church that regards the Pope as its guiding leader, and the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which historically appointed its own bishops — a job that belongs to the Pope.

Religious persecution in China has been the norm for decades. Priests and bishops loyal to Rome have been imprisoned and tortured for resisting the iron hand of the government in controlling religion. Churches and shrines have been destroyed, parishioners driven into hiding to celebrate the Eucharist.

Details of the 2018 provisional agreement have never been revealed, but essentially it brought China’s bishops into communion with Rome and gave the Pope the authority to approve new bishops. There have only been two bishops appointed under this agreement, which isn’t much to celebrate, and reports continue to surface of the state making life difficult — to put it mildly — for Catholic communities. Many, including the United States, have urged the Vatican to walk away from the pact with Beijing, citing its dismal record on human rights. Even some clergy in China have criticized the deal, claiming that the situation for Catholics has only gotten worse.

The Pope, it seems, is not discouraged. “The Holy See considers the initial application of the agreement — which is of great ecclesial and pastoral value — to have been positive,” the Vatican said after the extension of the deal was announced.

That’s not to say the Vatican is blind to the reality of dealing with a government that is unabashedly atheist. “The Holy See is deeply aware, is taking this well into account and does not fail to draw the attention of the Chinese government to the promotion of a more fruitful exercise of religious freedom,” the Vatican said.

The language used by the Vatican is careful and measured, indicative of the sensitive nature of its continuing dialogue with Chinese officials.

Pope Francis is walking a tightrope, the end game being to “support and promote the proclamation of the Gospel in these lands, reinvigorating the full and visible unity of the Church.”

In a statement that may be better categorized as an understatement, the Holy See has assessed its task: “There is still a long and difficult road ahead.”

Two years into this “experimental” arrangement, no one is claiming success. It is, at best, a start, but that’s better than doing nothing.

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