02/25/2021 China (International Christian Concern) – Newly-released regulations from the Chinese government indicate that, just weeks after finalizing a deal with the Vatican on the appointment of bishops in China, the Chinese government reneged on the bargain. The new regulation, titled Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy, imposes sweeping restrictions on religious practice outside of the five state-authorized religious organizations.
The regulation creates a new system by which religious leaders will be assessed on their loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, in a move reminiscent of the social credit system used to regulate Chinese citizens more generally. It also creates a database of approved clergy and, notably, claims the authority to appoint religious bishops in the Catholic church without papal input of any kind.
The Chinese government has, for years, claimed the authority to appoint bishops in China. This has created tension between Beijing and the Vatican, which believes that this authority rightfully rests with the pope. An initial compromise between Beijing and the Vatican was reached in 2018, but it expired in 2020 before being officially renewed on October 22.
The renewal attracted significant attention from around the world, with many observers criticizing it as a capitulation to China. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even traveled to the Vatican in the weeks leading up to the deal in an unsuccessful attempt to stymie it.
While the full text of the most recent agreement has not been released, the essence of the compromise is that China will formally recognize the pope’s final authority over the appointment of bishops within the official, state-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church. In exchange, the pope agreed to recognize the legitimacy of bishops already appointed by the Chinese government. The new regulations reverse the Chinese side of this bargain.
Writing for First Things in the weeks leading up to the latest agreement, Secretary Pompeo expressed his strong disapproval of the secret agreement. “Two years on, it’s clear that the  agreement has not shielded Catholics from the Party’s depredations, to say nothing of the Party’s horrific treatment of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees, and other religious believers.”
Others echoed Pompeo’s concern over the agreement and current Secretary of State Antony Blinken has largely continued in his predecessor’s footsteps in regards to China policy, though he has not been as public in his views as Pompeo was.
China quietly announced the new regulations in November and released the full text in January. They are scheduled to come into effect in May. The Vatican has yet to comment on the new regulations or to clarify how the appointment of Chinese bishops will be handled going forward.
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