The letter — addressed to the “Catholics of China and to the Universal Church” — amounted to a six-page case for the most controversial diplomatic endeavor of Francis’s papacy. The pontiff touched on the deal’s long history, explaining some of its particulars and even making a biblical argument for compromising with an imperfect partner.
“Had Abraham demanded ideal social and political conditions before leaving his land, perhaps he would never have set out,” Francis wrote.
The “provisional” deal announced Saturday by the Vatican was an attempt, after three decades of negotiation, to create new rules for how Catholic leaders are chosen in the most populous country, giving both the Chinese government and the Holy See a hand in the process. On Tuesday, speaking to journalists while returning from a trip through the Baltics, Francis said he, not the government, would have the final say in who is named. Such a development would mean that the Chinese government is allowing the pope more authority than it previously did.
The agreement aims to end the current system in which bishops are appointed by Beijing, sometimes without papal approval. In previous years, the Vatican also backed certain bishops in China who did not belong to the state association meant to sanction Catholic activity. As a result, the church in China has split in two — with some swearing allegiance solely to the pope and worshiping in underground churches, and others practicing in churches that had direct state approval. Of the estimated 10 million to 12 million Catholics in China, about half are affiliated with government-managed churches.
“This experience — it must be emphasized — is not a normal part of the life of the Church,” Francis wrote, referencing the church’s “clandestinity” in China.
The Vatican has faced criticism for compromising with an officially atheist nation that restricts religious freedom. Some Catholics in China prefer to practice without government interference and say the Vatican’s deal pushes them into the state-sanctioned religious system.
In his letter, Francis acknowledged that some people feel “doubt and perplexity, while others sense themselves somehow abandoned by the Holy See.”
But more broadly, Francis said, Chinese Catholics want to be in “full communion” with the global church — meaning their own leaders are recognized by the Vatican.
As part of the deal, in a central concession, the Vatican lifted the excommunications of seven Chinese bishops who had been ordained without papal approval. Francis wrote that he now wants those bishops to show “with concrete and visible gestures their restored unity with the Apostolic See.”
“I now invite all Chinese Catholics to work towards reconciliation,” he wrote.
The letter concluded by specifically addressing Chinese leaders, who have not yet spoken at length about their dealings with the Vatican. Francis wrote that the contact between China and the Vatican was “proving useful for overcoming past differences.” He also urged that relations between church communities and civil authorities “become more productive through frank dialogue and impartial listening, so as to overcome antagonism on both sides.”
China and the Vatican, he wrote, have been “called by history to an arduous yet exciting task.”