ROME—It has been nearly 70 years since the Roman Catholic Church had a direct say in official Catholic affairs in China after the communist regime expelled the papal nuncio from Beijing in 1951.
By 1960- the Chinese government had set up its own version of the Holy See, calling it the Catholic Patriotic Association with political appointee bishops chosen by the government. Most of the Chinese bishops including three under Pope Francis have been excommunicated by the mother church in Rome, which claims total authority over such appointments.
Of China’s nine million Catholics-nearly six million are part of the Catholic Patriotic Association. The other Chinese Catholics are members of a smaller parallel church, whose worshipers defy the Chinese government and instead bow to Rome’s ultimate authority, often meeting in makeshift structures to pray. Their bishops are appointed and approved by Rome.
Now, according to a report by the influential Jesuit magazine America, Pope Francis may be ready to accept Beijing’s previously outcast bishops and bring the Catholic Patriotic Association’s sizeable rogue membership back to the fold.
An unnamed source told America that a deal is “almost made” between Rome and the Chinese official church whereby Pope Francis would recognize seven of the most recently appointed bishops, including the three who were excommunicated.
A delegation from Rome, led by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, has met with a Beijing group a dozen times to hammer out the framework of a future collaboration between the two churches. The key issue for the Vatican hinges on full authority in the appointment of bishops going forward in exchange for accepting those Rome once denied. In all previous exchanges, the deal fell apart in the eleventh hour when Beijing apparently refused to concede the choice of its bishops. This time, though, according to the America article, the deal looks likely to hold.
“Pope Francis is expected to sign a decree that lifts the excommunication on the three bishops subject to such penalty, grants pardon to all seven illicit bishops and recognizes them as legitimate bishops in the Catholic Church and as ordinaries in the seven dioceses where they now reside,” according to the magazine. All seven of the previously illegitimate bishops have reportedly all been to Rome to ask forgiveness from Francis, which was a Vatican stipulation in the agreement.