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China and the Vatican Reach a Deal in the Battle Over ‘Underground Bishops’

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After decades of dispute, the Vatican and the Chinese government have reached a provisional deal over which of them has the authority to appoint bishops in China, the Vatican announced on Sept. 22. As part of the deal, Pope Francis has recognized the legitimacy of seven previously excommunicated, Beijing-appointed bishops. The Pope clarified on Sept. 25 that he will have final say over the naming of new bishops put forward by the communist government, but many details of the agreement remain unclear.


The Vatican and Beijing cut diplomatic ties in 1951, shortly after the Communist Party took power–though the Vatican kept relations with self-governing Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. Since then, two parallel churches have emerged in China, splitting the nation’s 10 million to 12 million Catholics between them: the official state-controlled Catholic Church, and a series of underground congregations led by over 30 bishops loyal only to the Vatican.


It’s not clear what the Pope’s recognition of the bishops appointed by the Chinese government means for those bishops. For some, like Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former Archbishop of Hong Kong, the Vatican’s agreement represents a betrayal of those who remained loyal to the papacy despite persecution. Others have criticized the Pope for caving in to the demands of an authoritarian state with a record of religious intolerance and human-rights abuses.


Pope Francis may not have had many options. In the past 50 years, Protestantism has overtaken Catholicism in China, with at least twice as many practicing the former. Francis has focused on outreach, and so, in the eyes of some, his engagement with China represents a success where his predecessors failed. The deal is still an interim one, and many details are not public, but the Pope expressed optimism that it will prove to be worth any compromises. “Let us pray,” he said, “for those who do not understand.”

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com