ON September 22, 2018, the Vatican has announced that it has signed with the People’s Republic of China a “provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops,” allowing Chinese Catholics to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.
This move has provoked criticism from Chinese Catholics faithful to Rome and, notably, from U.S. religious freedom leaders, who contend that the Vatican initiative concedes too much power to the government and undermines efforts to protect those behind the iron curtain. The president of the Religious Freedom Institute in the U.S., Thomas Farr said that the Agreement “will not improve the lot of Catholic in China, much less the status of religious freedom for non-Catholic religious communities,” rather it will inadvertently encourage “China’s policy of altering the fundamental nature of Catholic witness.”
This may have prompted Pope Francis to issue a message to “the Catholics of China and to the Universal Church” last September 26. He said, “Of late, many conflicting reports have circulated about the present and, in particular, the future of the Catholic communities in China. I am aware that this flurry of thoughts and opinions may have caused a certain confusion and prompted different reactions in the hearts of many. Some feel doubt and perplexity, while others sense themselves somehow abandoned by the Holy See and anxiously question the value of their sufferings endured out of fidelity to the Successor of Peter. In many others, there prevail positive expectations and reflections inspired by the hope of a more serene future for a fruitful witness to the faith in China.”
While critics argue that the provisional agreement is more of diplomacy than Christian witness, it actually delves deep into the very core of Christianity itself. Which is why it is very consoling to hear it from Pope Francis himself who, consistent with his brand of Petrine ministry, says, “In the sixth year of my Pontificate, which I have placed from the beginning under the banner of God’s merciful love, I now invite all Chinese Catholics to work towards reconciliation. May all be mindful, with renewed apostolic zeal, of the words of Saint Paul: “God… has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18).