ROME – The Vatican and China are set to sign a landmark agreement later this month intended to bring together China’s state-backed and unauthorized Catholic communities, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The controversial deal would mean the first official recognition by China’s government of the pope as the head of the Catholic Church in China.
In return, Pope Francis would formally recognize seven excommunicated Chinese bishops who were appointed by the Communist government without Vatican approval.
The agreement could still fall through or be delayed due to unforeseen events, one of the people said.
Such a deal would come even though the Beijing government has recently stepped up a crackdown on Christians and people of other religions, involving church closures and removals of religious symbols. It is thus expected to stir criticism of the pope, at a time when he is under fire for his handling of the church’s sexual-abuse crisis.
The deal between China and the Vatican has been delayed for much of this year by negotiations over two bishops who would have to cede their positions as part of the compromise, and by a backlash from parts of the Chinese Catholic community against the pope’s concessions.
Pope Francis’ pursuit of the deal reflects his desire for better relations with China – where Christianity is growing fast, though mostly among Protestants – and for an end to divisions among Catholics there.
China’s estimated 10 million Catholics are legally supposed to worship only in churches approved by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a state-controlled body not recognized by the Vatican.
But many Catholics attend unregistered churches in so-called underground communities led by bishops loyal only to Rome.
Beijing is eager for the publicity boost that mending ties with the Vatican would bring, even as the Communist Party prosecutes a systematic campaign to bring Catholicism and all other religions more firmly under its control.
A new agreement would allow the pope to veto nominees for bishops proposed by the Chinese government.
Beijing’s major condition for signing has been that the pope recognized the seven Chinese bishops excommunicated by Rome over the years.
The Vatican didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.
At a routine Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference on Thursday, spokesman Geng Shuang declined to confirm the deal’s status, but said China was sincere in its efforts for better relations with the Vatican.
A CPCA official said the group had nothing to disclose.
China’s United Front Work Department, which oversees religious regulation, didn’t respond to a faxed request for comment.
China broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1951. In recent decades, the two sides have cooperated informally to agree on most bishops appointments, but Beijing has periodically named bishops without the pope’s approval.
At the last meeting of the negotiating teams, in Rome in June, the Vatican assured the Chinese representatives that Pope Francis would sign the necessary document to lift the excommunications of the seven government-appointed bishops and recognize them as the bishops of their dioceses about a week before the deal is signed, said one of the people familiar with the matter.
That recognition will require two bishops who have shunned government control, in the dioceses of Shantou and Mindong, to step aside in favor of government-appointed bishops.
They are the first “underground” bishops who have been asked to do so by the Vatican.
Negotiations over their cases, and resistance from some Chinese Catholics, account for the most recent delays in reaching an agreement, which both sides had hoped to conclude in the spring, the other person familiar with the matter said.
Shantou Bishop Zhuang Jianjian and Mindong Bishop Guo Xijin couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday.
Also as part of the deal, the government is expected to recognize the “underground” bishop of Qiqihar, in Heilongjiang province, one of the people said.
Qiqihar Bishop Wei Jingyi couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.
The agreement is explicitly provisional, meaning that it allows for the possibility of revisions after one or two years if either party sees the need.
Both parties have agreed that the text of the agreement won’t be published even after it is signed, one of the persons said.
Critics of the prospective deal have cast it as a capitulation by the Vatican.
“I would make a cartoon showing the pope kneeling and offering the keys of the kingdom of heaven and saying, ‘Now, please recognize me as pope,’” Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong, told an interviewer in March.
“The advisers of the pope are giving him advice to renounce his authority.”
The agreement on bishop appointments will leave unresolved other major questions between the Vatican and China, including the position of most of the more-than 30 bishops recognized by Rome but not by Beijing.
The re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and the Vatican remains a distant goal.