The Vatican negotiates with Beijing over the appointment of Catholic bishops

Negotiations are underway between the Vatican and the Chinese government to determine who has the authority to elect bishops. These negotiations are reopening previously closed diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China, which ended in 1949. These efforts at negotiation demonstrate a significant effort on the part of Pope Francis to heal the schism between the underground Catholic faithful and the state-backed Catholic Patriotic Association.

The deal would be significant for Vatican-China relations, as the Vatican does not currently recognize the current communist regime. Instead, they recognize the Chinese nationalist government in Taiwan as the lawful Chinese government. The proposed agreement, therefore, represents an overt attempt by the Vatican to restore diplomatic relations with Beijing.

Currently, the state-backed church in China is controlled by the Chinese government, and in this state-backed church, bishops are appointed by the government. In contrast, because it is illegal for the Vatican to appoint bishops in China, laity and clergy faithful to the Vatican are forced to operate underground. Additionally, the Chinese government has been known to destroy crosses and churches. China is generally wary of any foreign influence on its citizens, and is deeply concerned by Chinese citizens being Catholics loyal to Rome, rather than loyal solely to China.

In the proposed deal, which has not been agreed upon or fully disclosed, two of the Church’s legitimate bishops would be required to step aside. Additionally, seven excommunicated bishops appointed by the Chinese government would be sanctioned by Pope Francis. In the proposed deal, the government of China would have the authority to appoint bishops, although Pope Francis would have the power to veto them.

Cardinal Zen voiced the concerns of many Chinese Catholics when he called the proposed agreement a “sell out” that would cede authority of the Church in China to the communist regime. Many are concerned that the deal legitimizes bishops ordained without Vatican approval, including some who were excommunicated for collaborating with the regime. An open letter published by some Chinese Catholics stated: “[These bishops’] moral integrity is questionable. They do not have the trust of the faithful, and have never repented [for accepting ordination without Vatican approval] publicly. If they were to be recognized as legitimate, the faithful in Greater China would be plunged into confusion and pain, and schism would be created in the Church in China.” The letter was signed by dozens of Chinese Catholics concerned about the implications of the proposed agreement with the Chinese Church.

Although the concerns of Chinese Catholics are legitimate, is not entirely unprecedented that nations have a say in the choice of bishops. Up until the late 19th century, it was still common practice for civil authorities to nominate bishops for approval or to even have veto power over Vatican-chosen bishops. This practice has fallen out of favor in modern times, as the Church has pushed towards exercising authority over appointment of bishops. Christus Dominus, a decree promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, states that the Church “desires that in the future no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be granted to civil authorities.” Although disapproving, this document does not explicitly forbid civil authorities from nominating bishops, which leaves the door open for the proposed agreement with China.

These negotiations are complicated by the increasingly oppressive attitude the Chinese government holds with regard to religion. New religious regulations, which took effect February 1, require that the state “actively guides religion to fit in with socialist society.” In addition, the regulations state that religious groups and schools “are not to be controlled by foreign forces.” They also prohibit “accepting domination by external forces, [and] accepting clergy from foreign religious groups or organizations without authorization.” The regulations contain harsh language towards unregistered religious activities. These regulations demonstrate that Beijing has cracked down on any religious activities not under the direct control of the state.

America, a prominent Jesuit magazine, reports that all seven excommunicated bishops appointed by the Chinese government have asked for pardon and reconciliation with the Church. However, concerns still remain about their fitness for office. Faithful bishops may view the reinstallation of these bishops who were disobedient to the Church as a betrayal.

As negotiations continue, concerns remain. The Vatican hopes to improve conditions for Chinese Catholics and to resolve the schism between the underground church and the state-backed church. China hopes to retain control over and the loyalty of its citizens. And most importantly, ordinary Chinese Catholics hope that the integrity of the Church they love so dearly is preserved.

Teresa Kaza is a junior double majoring in Philosophy and Biology. She dreams of one day being able to telepathically communicate with cats. If you share her dream, you can contact her at