Analysis: Francis, China, and the art of the deal

Vatican City, Mar 28, 2018 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- If Vatican-brokered agreements negotiated under his leadership are any indication, it seems clear that when a deal is on the table, Pope Francis usually tries to take it.

In Colombia, with the U.S. and Cuba, and in China, it seems that Francis generally prefers to take an imperfect patch job that might at least begin to restore broken ties, even if it faces opposition, rather than waiting for perfect diplomatic agreement to arise.

A clear example of this is the Vatican’s pending agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, which many sources, including the Vatican’s own Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, have said is “imminent.”

In negotiations with China, the Vatican is reportedly using an approach similar to the one that led to a 1996 accord Parolin brokered with Vietnam. In China, the Holy See would apparently have the final say in appointing bishops, choosing from a selection of candidates put forward by the government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the legally recognized Catholic body in the nation.

The proposal has been harshly criticized by some, including Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen. However, many, including Zen’s successor Cardinal John Tong Hon, himself also Emeritus Bishop of Hong Kong, have supported an accord, saying the situation for religion in China has generally improved, and that while there might be problems in some areas, China is a large nation, and incidents of arrest or imprisonment are generally rare and limited to certain regions.

Similar conversations happened when the Vatican helped the Colombian government and leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reach a peace agreement in September 2016, intended to an end five decades of violent armed conflict that left some 260,000 people dead and millions displaced.  

The Vatican helped to broker the agreement, which allowed the incorporation of some FARC leaders into the government, in exchange for the group’s disarmament and renunciation of kidnapping and drug trafficking.

The deal marked a breakthrough in what had been a long-time stalemate in which neither side was willing to budge.

However, it was met with mixed reactions from Colombian citizens and Church leaders, with some priests, bishops, and cardinals voicing dissatisfaction, arguing that the deal’s stipulations were too lenient on the guerrilla fighters.

Though voters rejected the deal in an October 2016 referendum, the Colombian government and FARC renegotiated its terms, implementing a plan in November 2016. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos Calderón was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in the peace process.

Despite debate on the ground, Cardinal Parolin traveled to Colombia for the official signing of the accord in a show of support, and in September 2017 Pope Francis visited Colombia himself, making a 6-day trip to the South American nation to recognize steps made in the peace process.

The peace deal remains controversial, and critics note that 250 activists and political leaders have been murdered in Colombia since the agreement was struck. But there remain opportunities to build on the groundwork laid by the accord.

Francis was also an active player in helping broker the 2015 restoration of ties between the United States and Cuba, bringing an end to a freeze in diplomatic relations severed in 1961.

Secret talks between diplomats from each side began in 2013, and were aided by support from the Vatican.

The Vatican’s role was largely unknown until the process had already been mostly formalized, but the Vatican’s role in helping broker the deal was significant.

Francis showed just how invested the Holy See was in restoring relations between the two nations that he added a stop in Cuba ahead of his visit to the United States in September 2015.

For the China deal currently being discussed, the biggest concern is how much religious freedom Catholics will actually have if it’s signed and implemented.

Opponents such as Cardinal Zen have questioned whether it’s possible to have genuine dialogue with the Chinese government, and whether Beijing will in fact allow Catholics to have a longer leash should a deal come to fruition.

However, others, such as Cardinal Tong, have argued that China is a large country where incidents of arrests or imprisonments are largely isolated to certain areas.

Cardinal Zen has often said that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” and in a recent blog-post called the proposal an act of “suicide” and a “shameless surrender” to the communist government.

On the other hand, in an interview with CNA last week, Cardinal Tong said opposing the deal was “unreasonable.” He argued that the Chinese government has generally become more tolerant, and called the deal “far-sighted,” saying that at times, sacrifice is necessary in order for Catholics to become “members of one family.”

Compounding the debate is yesterday’s arrest of Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin of Mindong, who is recognized by the Vatican but not the government, and who was taken into custody by police alongside the diocesan chancellor. He was held overnight but was later released, and was barred from celebrating any Mass as a bishop, including Holy Week liturgies.

According to Asia News, Guo was detained for refusing to concelebrate this week’s Chrism Mass with Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, one of seven illicit bishops backed by the Chinese government.

Asia News reports that after refusing to concelebrate the Chrism Mass with Zhan, Guo organized a separate, earlier Chrism Mass for the “underground” faithful in Mindong, who form the majority of the local Church, and was seized in order to prevent him from moving forward with the liturgy.

In January, Asia News reported that a Vatican delegation asked Bishop Guo voluntarily to accept a position as auxiliary bishop, serving under Bishop Zhan. The request was made as one of the conditions of an eventual agreement between the Vatican and the Chinese government.

Details or an official timeline for a deal in China have not been made public, and no declaration has been made on the seven illicit bishop, meaning that for the moment, they are still excommunicated. Under the terms of the proposed deal, the Vatican would reportedly regularize each of the seven illicit bishops, bringing them into communion with Rome.

Though it is unknown what impact, if any, Guo’s overnight detainment will have on an agreement between China and the Vatican, many who are close to the situation, including Cardinal Parolin, have in recent weeks said things are moving forward, and it may only be a matter of months before a deal is made.

Cardinal Zen recently met with Pope Francis during a last-minute trip to Rome in January, after Guo and another bishop were asked to step down in favor of bishops backed by the Chinese government.

Francis’ willingness to meet with Cardinal Zen, just as he met with many Colombian prelates ahead of the 2016 peace deal, some of whom shared reservations, indicates that he is willing to hear out other perspectives on these matters, and talk things through, even if he chooses to move forward anyway.

So while a deal with China, if it is made, will certainly be met with mixed reactions, one thing is certain: there is likely not much that will stop Francis from going after it, so long as he sees the potential of real change for the better.

For Francis, something is always better than nothing, and if there’s a shot, even with problems unresolved, he prefers to try. Whether this approach bears good fruit or not, we can probably expect to Francis to have a similar approach moving forward.

 

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