The Vatican has reached a “provisional agreement” with the People’s Republic of China to settle a decades-old dispute over the appointment of Catholic bishops. It’s a diplomatic milestone which has been fiercely attacked by critics of both Pope Francis and the Chinese government.

For some background, MercatorNet interviewed Massimo Introvigne, an Italian expert on the sociology of religion and editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, an online magazine about religious liberty and human rights in China.

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MercatorNet: Has the Vatican “sold out” the bishops, priests and lay people of the underground Church? The Wall Street Journal, amongst many others, says that the Vatican has been tricked, as many businesses have been in the past.

Massimo Introvigne: The situation is more complicated. There is a tradition of the Vatican to conclude compromise deals with regimes that claim they have a right to appoint Catholic bishops. The situation that had existed in China since 1957, with two parallel rival Catholic Churches, one “patriotic” with bishops selected by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and one “underground” with bishops appointed by the Vatican, has never been regarded as ideal.

In fact, in recent decades the Vatican had denied that in China there were two Churches (although, from the point of view of an external sociological observation, this was certainly the case) and has used the rhetorical narrative of divisions within one single Chinese Catholic Church. And as soon as it was possible it started negotiating a deal, well before Pope Francis.

The same happened with the French Revolution, when at one stage there were two parallel Churches, one “Constitutional” and one living underground and loyal to Rome. The Vatican was happy to sign a concordat with Napoleon that in fact merged the two Churches.

At that time, some die-hard members of what had been the underground Church accused the Holy See of a sell-out to Napoleon and created the schism of the “Petite Église,” which still keeps a handful of members today. This is a risk in China too. History teaches us that the Vatican’s move is not unprecedented. The Vatican has always preferred totalitarian regimes to have a voice in the appointment of bishops rather than creating or maintaining their own parallel Churches.

MercatorNet: Why are the details of the agreement being kept secret?

Introvigne: I believe secrecy is more a request by the CCP than by the Vatican. Within CCP there were several opponents of the deal, including some leaders of the Patriotic Church. They enjoyed their lavish lifestyles, some of them even had female companions and children, and they will not necessarily like having to answer to the Vatican, which is less tolerant than the CCP about these matters.

Of courses, the secrecy means we do not know exactly how the new bishops will be selected. There is a Vietnamese model, created with Vietnam by Monsignor Parolin (he was not yet a Cardinal) in 1996 and revised in 2010. In Vietnam, the Holy See indicates three candidates and the government picks up one of them. Rumors are that in China it will be the other way round. The CCP will indicate three candidates—allegedly elected by priests, nuns, and representatives of the laity—and the Vatican will select one of them.

But others say the CCP will indicate only one candidate and the Pope would be able to veto him: in this case, the CCP will indicate a second one, and so on.

MercatorNet: It’s a bit perplexing that the agreement has been reached while the Chinese government seems to be cracking down on religious freedom. The treatment of Muslim Uighurs does not inspire confidence in President Xi’s generosity. Are the Chinese sincere?

Introvigne: Of course not, but this is the very reason the Vatican has signed the agreement. With the new law of religion that came into force on February 1, the grey area between the government-approved religions and those banned and persecuted as xie jiao (“heterodox teachings”), such as Falun Gong or The Church of Almighty God, is being dismantled. Either you are government-approved or you are xie jiao.

The Catholic underground Church was part of this grey area, together with the Protestant house churches. Some Protestant house churches just signed a document vowing to resist, but they do not have the backing of something like the Vatican, which can deal with China as a State and not a religious centre only.

It is because it noticed that the grey area was being dismantled that the Vatican regarded signing the agreement as urgent. Again, there is a mythology that the Catholic Church always gladly embraces persecution, because the martyrs produce new Christians. If there is a persecution, martyrs will be indeed one day beatified or canonized. But the Vatican diplomacy exists to prevent the persecutions wherever this is reasonably possible.

MercatorNet: Is this a sweetheart deal manufactured by Cardinal Parolin and Pope Francis? Or is it in continuity with the diplomacy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI?

Introvigne: In fact, already under Benedict XVI, with precedents even before, the Vatican and China had agreed to recognize the same person as bishop of most dioceses. The Church remained divided in two separate communities, Patriotic and underground, but the bishop was the same. What seems to have happened now is that the solution has been extended to all dioceses. Clearly the aim is to overcome the separation into two communities, not only the legal but also the sociological one. But this will require further steps.

MercatorNet: What is the ultimate ambition of the Vatican’s diplomacy? Does it believe that Chinese are ripe for evangelisation?

Introvigne: I believe the Vatican has in mind precedents like Poland or Lithuania, where there was confrontation but also deals. By remaining openly present in these countries, slowly the Catholic Church contributed to the collapse of the Communist regimes. Ex post facto, on can say that the choice not to go underground but to strike deals and remain openly present, was a good choice. Obviously nobody in the Vatican would say it openly about China, but many would have these precedents in mind. Time will tell whether this is wise forward-thinking or a dangerous delusion.

MercatorNet: In your magazine Bitter Winter, you have chronicled government repression of many sects in China. If Catholics and other Christians are successful at winning converts, won’t a harsh crackdown be more likely than ever?

Introvigne: Yes, China has a stick and carrot approach. The Vatican is trying to institutionalize the carrot part, but they would be very naive in not considering that the stick part is also always there.

What concerns me is whether the Catholics will continue to honour the magisterium of Vatican II and Francis himself, that religious freedom is indivisible and does not depend on theologies, and that the Catholic Church does not (or no longer, after Vatican II) asks for religious liberty for itself only, but for everybody as a universal human right.

Would Chinese Catholics, Vatican bureaucrats, and Vatican media be true to the principle, and raise their voice for all persecuted religious minorities in China? There are some bad signs here, with some Catholic media joining the CCP in demonizing the xie jiao as “evil cults” that commit crimes and are not really religious or claiming that most Uyghurs are terrorist or the house churches are financed by the CIA.

This is obviously stupid fake news, but I hope this is the fault of individual journalists only. It would be very sad if a hidden price to pay for the agreement would be an implicit commitment of the Catholic Church to support the CCP campaign against other religious minorities in China.

MercatorNet: The two churches may have the same bishops, but will the priests and laypeople cooperate with each other? 

Introvigne: In the end yes, if the Vatican says so. But it will be a long and painful process, and some conservatives may be tempted to establish the Chinese equivalent of the Petite Église in Napoleon’s France.

Is the process of negotiation finished? Or are there many loose ends left to tie up?

Introvigne: Everybody agrees that it has just started.

Massimo Introvigne is a well-known sociologist of religion and the managing director of CESNUR (Center for Studies of New Religions) in Turin, Italy. He is also the editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, an online magazine on religious liberty and human rights in China.  

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new...