Vatican, China in hush negotiations on ‘underground’ bishops: sources

After clinching a historic deal, the Vatican and China are involved in fresh negotiations over the fate of “underground” bishops who remained faithful to the pope for decades despite pressure from Beijing, sources say.

The Vatican hopes the negotiations following Saturday’s deal — seen as paving the way for rapprochement between the Catholic Church and Beijing — will lead China to soften its approach to those who swore allegiance to the pontiff for decades.

A Vatican source and a Chinese priest told AFP the Holy See could win concessions by the end of the year, though the details of any agreement reached would remain classified.

After a decades-long impasse over who presides over the now roughly 12 million-strong Catholic faithful, Saturday’s pact saw Pope Francis recognise seven clergy ordained by Beijing.

The clergy were the final seven to gain recognition from Rome after some 70 other members of the Patriotic Catholic Association (PCA), created by the Chinese government to administer the church, were recognised over the past two decades.

Analysts largely described the deal as a win for Beijing.

China has been waging a broad religious crackdown, with “illegal” churches raided or bulldozed and worshippers harassed, and the underground clergy wants safeguards. Some 20 percent of its bishops are over 90 years old.

Greater freedoms 

“China has not changed its position on freedom of religion,” but the goal is to try to “give more space” to Catholic believers, a Vatican source told AFP.

Saturday’s deal “is not very satisfactory” as it stands, “but it is the only one we could get now” he said, predicting that it will be “revised in the next few years”.

The accord did not include the 40 or so bishops directly nominated by the Holy See, who belong to China’s underground church and have never been recognised by the Communist regime.

The Vatican wants Beijing to protect their rights. It has already been assured by China that they will be not be forced into the PCA.

“Two or three” of them have won acceptance from Beijing so far, and Francis’ negotiators hope to get the government to recognise another dozen before December, the source said.

The PCA’s statute says its aim is to create an “independent church” — an expression that would appear to rule out the Vatican’s oversight. But the Holy See could accept it if it is reinterpreted to mean political independence.

Trusted observers  

Under the new deal, Francis will have the final say on naming bishops.

“Each nomination will have to be debated. Getting final agreement will be complicated. It will be important to have trusted observers in China,” admitted the Vatican source.

A Chinese priest, who previously worked in an underground church in China and returned to Rome last year, confirmed to AFP that negotiations on the recognition of underground bishops by Beijing were underway.

He said that a final agreement that doesn’t mention or recognise them would be a severe blow.

“For us priests, we will unconditionally accept the agreement, even if in our hearts we feel terrible. But we will follow whatever is finalised.”

Underground bishop Joseph Wei Jingyi in China told the Vatican Insider website this week that a failure to win concessions on the matter from Beijing “could provoke a negative reaction… (and) be used against the pope”. 

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